If you’re looking for an innocuous family movie to take your kids to over the holidays, you could do worse than “Fat Albert.” The live-action version of Bill Cosby’s 1970s cartoon series–itself based on characters that he developed in his stand-up act, based on his actual childhood friends–is certainly sweet-natured, with uplifting messages about friendship and family, and it studiously avoids the kind of crudity and even mild violence that characterizes so much children’s entertainment these days. That’s a refreshing change.
At the same time, if you’re searching for a really imaginative family movie–one that will have both parents and offspring smiling as they leave the theatre—“Fat Albert” will prove a distinct disappointment. Though inoffensive, it’s also flat and rather tedious; in fact, it resembles its creator in being so laid-back that it sometimes seems positively comatose. In other words, the movie isn’t ready for the junkyard, but it isn’t very fresh, either.
The scenario concocted by Cosby and Charles Kipps is that the animated Fat Albert, whose shows are being repeated on the TV Land cable network, hears one of the viewers–a young girl named Doris (Kyla Pratt) who’s sad over her lack of friends and the recent death of her beloved grandfather–crying as she watches the show; and when her tears hit the remote control, it allows him literally to come through the television in the “real” person of Kenan Thompson. He’s followed by a bunch of his cartoon friends–Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III), Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), Bill (Keith D. Robertson), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley), Weird Harold (Aaron A. Frazier) and Dumb Donald (Marques B. Houston)–and together they try to help not only Doris but her foster sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez), who also has problems (and on whom Albert quickly develops a crush). The guys interact with a much-changed world while waiting for the old TV series to reappear on the tube so that they can morph back through the screen to their old animated selves–something that’s important not only because the junkyard that’s their home base is being taken over by a rival gang in their absence, but also because as long as they remain in the “real world” they’re gradually fading away. But while here they take the opportunities this new place affords–Mushmouth, for example, starts to speak intelligibly, and Donald becomes a bookworm. (Curiously, these improvements will disappear when they become cartoon figures again–an odd “lesson” indeed.) They attract the ire of a troublemaker–the unduly arrogant, self-promoting Reggie (Omari Grandberry). And they aid both Doris and Lauri in the process. (There’s also an explanation of why Fat Albert morphed into the real world in this particular instance offered by Cosby himself, who shows up in the movie to advise the chunky transplant about what he must do.)
None of this is especially novel, but what’s surprising is how little is done with it. One can imagine the clash between these seventies cartoon figures and twenty-first century life offering great comedic opportunities–just think of the “Brady Bunch” movies as an exemplar in this connection–but nothing much is made of it beyond a few throwaways (the guys are amazed by pop-tops on soda cans, for instance). And despite the attempt to create some hurdles for the gang to overcome (Doris and Lori’s troubles, Reggie’s hostility, the danger that the guys might simply dissipate), the tempo of the picture is kept so flaccid by director Joel Zwick and the performers that not even a smidgen of suspense is generated along the way. The result is a movie so bland and lackadaisical that even the youngest kids and most nostalgic devotees of the old cartoons are unlikely to be enchanted. Even a sort of reunion between Cosby and the real people on whom he modeled the “Fat Albert” characters at the close doesn’t bring the warmth that was clearly intended. And technically the picture is curiously unimaginative, too.
A couple of troublesome points might be noted. One is that in a movie that otherwise avoids a crass commercial element, there’s a virtual blurb for the “Fat Albert” DVD set that’s very intrusive. The other is that in an era concerned about an epidemic of childhood obesity, Albert’s gargantuan size is not only played for laughs but positively celebrated. (And, of course, he seems to suffer no ill effects from it, aside from having to squeeze through a large TV screen while his fellows slide through without difficulty.) These issues would probably not even be noticed if “Fat Albert” were a better movie. As it is, they tend to loom large–if you’ll excuse the pun–even while you’re watching it.