This "Fat Albert" sure ain't phat.
The feature film revival of the animated character based on Bill Cosby's comedy routines and a staple of 1970s and '80s Saturday morning television eschews any attempt to be dope, fly or bangin', content to remain as squeaky clean as its creator.
The Cos may be a Hall of Famer in the television world but his track record in the movies is sketchy, to say the least. Aside from an entertaining run in the mid-'70s that included "Hickey & Boggs," "Uptown Saturday Night," "Let's Do It Again," "Mother, Jugs & Speed" and "California Suite," Cosby is not someone whose cinema CV sets hearts aflutter, and the big-screen version of "Fat Albert" will do nothing to change that.
Cosby co-wrote, co-produced and makes a cameo as himself in the latest incarnation of "Fat Albert," in which the corpulent problem-solver from North Philly and six of his buddies, collectively known as the Cosby kids, squeeze out of the tube and into real life on the strength of a magic teardrop shed onto a TV remote control. That powerful droplet, from the eyes of a lonely teen named Doris (sweetly played by Kyla Pratt) who's watching the old "Fat Albert" series on TV Land, creates a portal that allows the characters from the show to arrive in Doris' living room in all their live-action glory (and played by actors).
The "real life" in which Doris exists is actually no more realistic than the painted cel world from which Fat Albert hails. It is, after all, a place where a teenage girl's biggest problem is that she has no friends, and her North Philly neighborhood has all the bland ambience of the studio back lot where it was filmed.
Most of the meager story revolves around Fat Albert and his friends following Doris around trying to make her popular, and the film's mild humor is primarily rooted in the '70s refugees' reactions to modern gadgets such as cellphones and laptop computers.
The problem is, Fat Albert and the gang are fading. Literally. The longer they're out of the box, the faster they drain of their bright hues. Not only that, but they're losing their cartoon attributes. Mushmouth becomes articulate, Old Weird Harold loses his clumsiness on the basketball court, transforming himself into Air Hal, and Dumb Donald ditches the ski mask and starts devouring African American history at the library.
Despite the tired premise, Kenan Thompson — formerly of Nickelodeon's "Kenan and Kal" and now a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" — is actually very persuasive as Fat Albert. His wide grin and googly eyes infuse the character with precisely the right level of optimism for the role. Likewise, Shedrack Anderson III (Rudy), Jermain Williams (Mushmouth), Keith D. Robinson (Bill), Alphonso McAuley (Bucky), Aaron A. Frazier (Old Weird Harold) and Marques B. Houston (Dumb Donald) are aptly cast and bring to their roles the same quirks the characters possessed as cartoons. That might not normally be high praise for an actor, but here that's all that is required.
In light of Cosby's well-publicized comments earlier this year, in which he chastised lower-income blacks for not holding up their part of the bargain since the civil rights movement, parents are strangely missing from "Fat Albert." While that was part of the conceit of the original series, the absence of parents, not to mention the nonexistence of the problems Cosby was addressing — illiteracy, violence and substance abuse — feels like a cop-out. What a better forum than this film for Cosby to put his concerns into a message people might actually get?
Whether this new Fat Albert connects to today's kids is debatable. It's an odd fit. The whole thing seems a little too goody-goody for the tweens it's obviously aimed at, and the younger kids who might enjoy the rotund one's pratfalls and high jinks likely won't sit still for the gooey message the film does provide.
Directed by TV veteran Joel Zwick, fresh off "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the movie feels small and flat. The story is stretched dangerously thin at 93 minutes and would have been better suited to a television special.
MPAA rating: PG for momentary language
Times guidelines: Mushmouth talks a blue streak — but you can't understand any of it.
Fat Albert...Kenan Thompson
Dumb Donald...Marques B. Houston
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Davis Entertainment Company / SAH Enterprises production, released by Fox. Director Joel Zwick. Producer John Davis. Executive producers William H. Cosby Jr., Camille O. Crosby. Screenplay by William H. Cosby Jr. & Charles Kipps. Director of photography Paul Elliott. Editor Tony Lombardo. Costume designer Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Music Richard Gibbs. Production designer Nina Ruscio. Art director Scott Meehan. Set decorator K.C. Fox. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.
This big screen adaptation goes heavy on the sugar.
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