December 22nd, 2004
A film of minuscule pleasures, “Fat Albert” surprises with its organic lessons, an astonishingly peaceful lead performance from Kenan Thompson, and mild comedic sequences. “Albert” is hardly rocket science, but the simple fact that this film is at all passable is nothing short of a miracle.
Suffering from low self-esteem, Doris (Kyla Pratt) is unable to find any friends at her school, and has stopped chasing her dreams. Magically, her tears bring the cartoon series “Fat Albert” to life, whisking Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson), Dumb Donald (Marques Houston), Old Weird Harold (Aaron Fraizer), Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley), and Bill (Keith Robinson) out of their animated 1970s surroundings, to the confusing, problematical world of the 21st century. Upon arrival, the sights and sounds of the real world overwhelm Albert and the gang, but once Albert finds his mission: to help Doris find friends, he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.
“Fat Albert” is a film of small charms, yet the idea that an adaptation like this has any charms to speak of is a miracle. A potential disaster just in conception, “Albert” doesn’t win awards for creativity or cleverness, but mostly for survival. The thought of a live action, updated version of a distinctly 1970s animated television series just doesn’t promise hey-hey-hey hugs. However, “Albert” is a reasonable good time at the movies.
Produced and co-written by Bill Cosby (who also cameos), the new incarnation of “Albert” remains true to the spirit of the original series in that it functions as a simple morality tale for kids who aren’t typically targeted for such things. The moral is simple: believe in yourself. However, it’s delivered with a smoothly organic quality that Disney and Pixar could use practice in. “Albert” doesn’t lurch to a stop when the time comes for the characters to learn life lessons. Instead, Cosby incorporates such responsibilities with simplicity, and fills the rest of the picture with mildly comedic sights such as Albert and the gang infiltrating a mall, and Albert competing in a running race with his rival (Omari Grandberry), blissfully aware that he’ll win because that’s just the way he’s always been animated.
Of course, the price paid for the slight pleasures found in “Albert” is to sit through some exquisitely lumbering ideas that I’m shocked made it past the “you’re gonna think I’m crazy for suggest this” writers’ meeting stage. Naturally, there is the obligatory rap sequence where the gang discovers the powers of the modern rhyme. Inherently faulty, the scene would be better served had Joel Zwick (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) not directed it. Zwick, a 62 year-old Caucasian, directs the scene exactly like, well, how you would imagine a 62 year-old Caucasian would direct the scene. It’s dreadful. Another bad idea is a small plot point that finds the gang recognizing themselves on a poster for an upcoming DVD release of the “Fat Albert” cartoon show. That gag is just a little too corporate synergistic to be funny, and way too self-referential to be inventive. Thankfully, that material is brief.
The true revelation of “Fat Albert” is that star Kenan Thompson can actually be a charming presence when he decides to tuck his instinctual comedic talents away. As found in several films and television shows over the years, Thompson is a severely unfunny comedian, prone to the worst urban slapstick and hip-hop colloquialisms imaginable. “Fat Albert” gives Thompson an iconic character to play, with very little room to find his own interpretation of the big man in red. Thompson plays it mostly straight, finding Albert’s soft heart quickly, and emphasizing his sweet, do-gooder side very well. There are moments where Thompson breaks character and flashes that old poisonous wit of his. Mercifully, those are brief tangents in an otherwise flattering performance.
For a film that sets such a small goal for itself, “Fat Albert” is a decent diversion. The film doesn’t embarrass the original creation like it had every right to do, and delivers the Cosby-infused world with minimal pushing or shoving.
My rating: B-