Monday, August 12, 2013

Ted vs. Paul

I've been thinking about this for a long time.  Probably longer than I should.

Within almost a year of each other two movies came out that were strikingly similar in many ways:

-Both were budgeted between $40 million - $50 million
-Both had a CGI main character
-Both movies were named after this CGI character
-Both leading voice actors, named Seth, were ironic in their casting
-Both had lots of marijuana references
-Both were steeped in obscure geek references
-Both were foul-mouthed and R-Rated
-Both had nearly identical run times (around 1:45)

And yet the difference between their worldwide box office is around $450 million dollars.

The first movie to come out was Paul, staring Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz alums Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

The story revolves around a pair of geeky British friends on a road trip through the desert who befriend an escaped stoner alien named Paul.

The second, more successful movie was Ted.

Written, directed, and starring Seth MacFarland of Family Guy fame, the film centers around Mark Wahlberg who plays grown up with a teddy bear best friend who came to life when his was a boy from a magical wish.

On paper, I would have been inclined to say that Paul would have been a better movie.  Pegg and Frost had two original buddy comedy movies under their belt and MacFarland had never done a feature like this.  And yet, Ted is head and shoulders above Paul.


I think it comes down to three things.

The first is that Ted is about something.

Having watched Ted several times, I've noted how well MacFarland wove the theme of arrested development and growing up to the plot and characters.  Ted himself acts as the living symbol of holding onto a childhood that prevents you from growing into a full adult.  Wahlberg's character is very real in that sense and his struggle between hanging out with his goofy friends and maturing for the love of his life is very relatable.

Paul doesn't really have that thematic cohesion.  The characters have arcs, but it doesn't feel like they get anywhere worthwhile.

The second is the performance of the voice actors.  Seth Rogen brought his usual self-amused tone to his Paul.  But while Seth MacFarland's Ted sounds just like Peter Griffin in dialect, he still gives him sympathetic and likable humanity.  Voice acting is its own art and MacFarland's experience over Rogen is obvious.

But the third is the most important: Paul is mean.

Both movies make fun of lots of people, Paul is much more pointed.  Particularly, it goes out of its way to make fun of religion.  Kristen Wiig plays a woman who experiences an awakening only when Paul releases her from the illusion of faith.  Ted also pokes fun at Christians, but with the same broad strokes that it slams on everyone, so that it never seems mean-spirited.  Paul keeps driving the point home that if you are a Christian you are a hateful, ignorant moron.

Most of us are fine with a good-natured ribbing from time to time, unless we have very thin skin.  But we can usually tell the difference when someone is joking around with us or joking at our expense.  Paul is sneering and smug.  The main characters are above everyone else they encounter.  In Ted, the main characters are working class schmoes and they see the absurdity in all walks of life, so you don't take them too personally.

I wanted to like Paul so much.  But the movie kept lecturing me that I was an idiot.  It made the jokes sting.

I went in very skeptical of Ted.  But when jokes were directed at me, I couldn't take it personally because the movie made fun of everyone and itself with jovial delight.

What do you think?

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