Fat Albert is the kind of movie that gives hackwork a bad name. Directed by Joel Zwick, whose resume consists almost entirely of sitcoms (with the quasi-exception of the feature My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and lazily scripted by Bill Cosby, who created the original cartoon series, and Charles Kipps, who has worked with Cosby on several shows he’s developed, beginning with 1994’s “The Cosby Mysteries,” Fat Albert is constructed entirely of cliches, is acted on a sub-community theater level, and has so little internal logic that it would be insulting to almost any conceivable audience. So, of course, it’s opened at number three at the box office.
The film opens with Doris (Kyla Pratt), a very pretty young girl with a broad, mournful face and no discernable acting ability, depressed because she hasn’t a single friend, while her foster sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez) a tall, multiracial girl with light skin and Caucasian features (she looks like a more sensual Jennifer Love Hewitt) is invited to parties and hit on by boys. (In the 1930s and ’40s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a famous series of studies, in which African-American children were offered two dolls, one creamy white, the other chocolate brown, and asked which was the more attractive; the overwhelming majority selected the white doll. Judging by the standards of beauty offered in most movies with African-American casts, it would appear that those children all grew up to be filmmakers. But I digress.) Seeking comfort, Doris watches a “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” cartoon. A teardrop falls onto her remote control and opens a portal between the cartoon world and the “real” north Philadelphia (actually an obvious backlot set, approximately two blocks long). And our jaws drop in amazement at the lack of effort put into getting the Fat Albert gang out of the TV.
So the whole gang pops out into a world where almost no one recognizes them, despite the fact that their show airs daily on TVLand (not true in our reality) and has just been released on DVD (conveniently, this is so), which fact is prominently advertised in the window of the corner video store. So let’s assume that everyone in north Philadelphia is blind or stupid (which we’re required to do in order to suspend disbelief); why is it, then, that the few people who actually do recognize Albert and the gang are all small children, and the adults, who are old enough to have actually seen the cartoon in its original run, have no idea who he is? (And why do the children mawkishly insist upon their need for him to go on telling his stories, as though he were the idol and moral sustenance for the current generation of little ones, rather than a half-forgotten relic of the ’70s?) If the filmmakers aren’t going to make any effort to entertain us (and they aren’t, oh boy, they aren’t) the least that they could do is try to make a little sense.
Albert and his gang busy themselves trying to find friends for Doris, while taking a break every few minutes to be mystified by current technology. (And it just gets funnier each time! I never thought they’d top the confusion over why a cell phone doesn’t have wires — but then someone hands Albert a wireless microphone, and … Zoinks!) Of course, complications arise when they realize that, out of the safety of the television, they’re gradually fading away (though it’s mentioned several times before they bother to put the boys in lighter-colored costumes — oops!) and must get back into the TV set ASAP — except that Albert is falling in love with Lauri. (Uh-oh!) Every scene and sequence is lifted from another movie, but Cosby/Kipps/Zwick didn’t even have the basic good sense of stealing from better material — everything here was just as lame the first time around.
As mentioned above, the performances are generally awful, but some special mention must be made of Kenan Thompson, who plays Fat Albert. I was only a little distracted that his mimicry of the character’s baritone kept slipping, but overall I find him one of the most annoying, least charismatic actors working today. Having begun as a child actor, Thompson still delivers each performance as if awaiting lavish praise from a doting parent. He telegraphs his supposed cuteness to the audience with such smug self-importance that the only justification for continuing to watch is the hope that eventually another actor will slap the smirk off his face. He was my least favorite element of Barbershop 2, and when I read that he was to play the lead in Fat Albert, I dreaded the outcome. He didn’t disappoint me.
The film is aggressively, obnoxiously badly made in its opening scenes, but eventually it settles into tedious mediocrity, supplying a cameo by Cosby himself that leads to a maudlin, sentimental backstory. The performers actually make the cartoons less alive than they were in two dimensions, so we don’t care about them, and there’s no suspense over the issue of whether Albert will make it back into the TV in time. Those with highly developed survival instincts will have walked out of the theater by then anyway.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Fat Albert / Jeremy Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()