A Bighearted 'Fat Albert'
Friday, December 24, 2004
MAYBE it was because I entered "Fat Albert" with the same enthusiasm I would for the gas chamber that I found myself -- hey, hey, hey -- entertained. It has been a few days, and I have given myself ample time to come to my senses. It still seems like a pretty cool movie -- at least, for a remake of a 1970s Saturday morning TV show.
Producer and co-writer Bill Cosby (creator of the original show) and co-writer Charles Kipps have found a disarmingly perfect way to turn a potential albatross into a fascinating flight of fancy. (It's interesting that "The Aviator," which also opens this weekend, is a flight of fancy that was turned into an albatross.) So how do they bring "Fat Albert" into the present? They do it literally. They pull Albert's bulky cartoon body through the television itself and transform him into a live-action figure (played by Kenan Thompson). Then they plonk him down in today's America, where he has to deal with some three-dimensional issues: being a real human, for one thing. Or the world of hip-hop. And falling in love.
By the way, Fat Albert ain't alone. The whole gang follows him out of that TV, too. Here's how. Al and his cohorts (in a cartoon) are playing their favorite game of buck-buck in their favorite North Philadelphia junkyard when, whoa, a bizarre hole appears in the sky. Peering through that fissure is a girl's face, a real girl's face, and she's crying. It's Doris (Kyla Pratt), a high school student in North Philly who has been watching the show. Her parents leave her at home all the time. No one's invited her to the prom. And her foster sister, the va-va-voom Lauri (Dania Ramirez), gets all the guys. Doris is shy and lonely. And her tears have trickled onto the TV remote and, well, she's broken through to Fat Albert's cartoon world.
Fat Albert decides to help her out. He squeezes himself through that hole (kinda makes you think of Winnie the Pooh and the Hunny Tree) and lands in Doris's living room and her life. So eventually does the whole gang -- Rudy, Mushmouth, Bill, Bucky, Old Weird Harold and Dumb Donald.
Director Joel ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") Zwick, Cosby and Kipps have not only created an intriguing concept, they've taken it a little further. Fat Albert and company learn to appreciate three-dimensional fun but also start to change. Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), for instance, is an incomprehensible mumbler as a cartoon character. But as a human, in this age of learning-disability consciousness, that becomes a real issue. It's not cute anymore, it's something to deal with. And Dumb Donald (Marques B. Houston), the one who wears the woolen face mask, has to muster the courage to see if he has a real face underneath.
While they're adapting to the real world, they also realize their colors are fading away. They're meant to be cartoons, not humans. But there's the matter of Doris's low self-esteem, and Albert's growing affection for Lauri. What's a gang of trans-cartoonites to do?
Given the cleverness of the movie's premise, it's a shame that Albert and his friends find themselves surrounded by conventional high school characters, such as shy Doris, pretty Lauri and narcissistic playa Reggie (Omari Grandberry). But Cosby and Kipps use this familiar fare for some rewarding comedy. Albert and his pals' adapting to the complex rituals of hip-hop, for instance, yields a lot of laughs, as does Fat Albert's amazing land speed when he takes to the running track.
Most movies that regenerate TV shows of the past feel compelled to update the characters and make them contemporary. But the characters in "Fat Albert" do the right thing: act themselves. In the movie, and in any good comedy, honesty is the only way to go. It's a relief, also, that Cosby (who also appears in the movie as himself) refuses to kowtow to hip-hop's winky-winky celebration of cuss-talk, mean street swagger and promiscuity. The movie is a PG-rated high-five to innocence and to those quainter, gentler, analogue-era times. You know, like when "Fat Albert" was on TV. And that's not too bad for a take-home message.