Asking whether we really needed a sequel to 2012’s Ted is almost unfair to Ted 2. Sequels, follow-ups, and part twos (and threes and fours) make up an ever-increasing percentage of our moviegoing diet these days. Questioning their necessity has nearly become reflexive. Treat it like a Mad Lib if you like. (Did we really need a sequel to _____?) The problem at the center of Ted 2, then, isn’t its status as a sequel, but rather Seth MacFarlane, the man responsible for making it. MacFarlane’s comedic style has merit within a sitcom format, where his ADD tendencies make up for his deficiencies as a storyteller. In a 2-hour movie, those various indulgences become profoundly grating before the opening credits song and dance routine comes to a close.
Think of Ted 2 as a variety show. It kicks off with a brief if uneventful sketch, features plenty of musical accompaniments, peddles in every sense of humor imaginable (from toilet to topical), and boasts celebrity cameos galore. (Liam Neeson kills in his brief allotment of screen time, which sadly doesn’t require a climactic reappearance. His shadow hangs over the rest of the movie, Chekov’s Brian Mills left unfired.) Just like last time, Mark Wahlberg plays host, though Ted 2 is more about MacFarlane’s mo-capped Ted than it is about John Bennett. A lot’s happened since the last film: John and Mila Kunis have gotten divorced, for one thing, and for another Ted has decided to get hitched to his girlfriend, Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), because hey, why not? What could be more ridiculous than a living teddy bear marrying a human being?
Try this: that teddy bear and that human being deciding to have a kid. Unsurprisingly, they can’t conceive on their own, so they try adoption, a decision that raises eyebrows over Ted’s personhood and ultimately leads the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to declare him property. The film takes the long road to the courthouse to fight over Ted’s status as a living, breathing creature, but when it gets there, it, well, it gets there. Bloated as Ted 2 may be, it’s slight. John and Ted enlist the help of an untested trial lawyer named Samantha (Amanda Seyfried), whose side career involves serving as John’s potential rebound. She also likes taking time out of her workday to fishbowl her office, which is only slightly less absurd than the film’s basic conceit.
If Ted 2 has a saving grace, it’s that MacFarlane knows how to wring chuckles out of his viewers. This is true whether you’re a fan of his cartoon television empire or whether you think he’s overstayed his welcome on the small screen; even the odd Family Guy episode is bound to have a couple of gags that work within their own contexts. But they don’t work toward the goal of telling a story, and that’s where Ted 2 hits a wall of tedium. MacFarlane appears to have started off with a handful of solid jokes and spun a screenplay around them instead of writing a plot first. Cut down by about 30 minutes, the results might play. Clocking in at just shy of 115 minutes, they stall out. The commencement of Ted 2’s ending credits scrawl may be one of the summer season’s greatest mercies.
But apart from being punishing, the film is also revelatory. In scene after scene, we get a glimpse of MacFarlane’s lack of self-confidence. The questions Ted 2 asks about what it means to be alive and to be human are interesting, and the conflict that spurs those questions is satisfyingly dramatic. (They’re also deeply troubling in line with the film’s constant evocation of watershed civil rights cases combined with its appallingly clumsy attempts to emulsify racism and humor. Maybe don’t compare Kunta Kinte to a stuffed animal next time, Seth.) But those thematic nuggets aren’t enough for MacFarlane; for whatever reason, he deems it necessary to have Giovanni Ribisi reprise his role as the heavy from Ted. To accommodate Ribisi’s brand of crazy, Ted 2 has to jump through a coterie of hoops that frustrate the viewing experience and obsolesce John Slattery’s casting as the prosecuting attorney in Ted’s trial.
Worse, MacFarlane can’t resist the siren call of his own oeuvre. Apart from Ribisi’s role reprisal, we’re saddled with more Sam J. Jones, more nerd-shaming to accompany his nerd hat tips, and a narrative blueprint that’s comprised chiefly of pop culture references. If he isn’t lifting and reenacting scenes from other, better movies, he’s using one-liners and set-ups that he’s already used on Family Guy. The nods, nudges, and winks make Ted 2 feel like an act of blatant self-indulgence. But we should know better by now. Apart from his knack for architecting independent moments of absurdity, MacFarlane’s chief talent lies in aggrandizement. It’s a marvel he hasn’t torn a rotator cuff from patting himself on the back so much.