"Fat Albert" Big, Fat Pile of Crap
One of modern Hollywood’s more curious genres has to be TV show adaptations, which are almost universally lambasted by critics and fans alike but still generally turn in a healthy profit. I suppose it’s the McDonald’s theory: people will flock to the familiar even if it means intestinal discomfort later. As long as there are famous TV franchises yet to be exploited it’s safe to say that no amount of critical tongue-lashing will keep these adaptations at bay. And so we are cursed with a remake of one of the most beloved and groundbreaking cartoon series of the 70s, Fat Albert. Alas, the only ground this film broke was the lobby floor as theatergoers stampeded away in disgust.
As children of the 60s-80s well know, Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert was a very popular and long running educational cartoon series about the good-natured shenanigans of the titular teenager and his gang of eccentric friends. The show was revolutionary in that it featured an all black cast and a (relatively) realistic depiction of life in the urban ghetto. Kids of course tuned in for the laughs, and these were provided in at least moderate amounts by the colorful crew of misfits, which included rotund Albert, unintelligible Mushmouth, half-witted Dumb Donald, showboating Rudy, diminutive Russell, et al., and their goofy hijinks in and around their beloved junkyard. I am hard pressed for a reason to give them to see this movie though, as it drops the charms of the series and fails to replace them with anything. Naturally there will be changes in any adaptation from one medium to another, and in fact I quite enjoyed some of the amusing oddball twists thrown into the Grinch and Cat in the Hat film versions. But here the extra running time adds no entertainment value whatsoever and the characters have been largely drained of their modest charisma and humor. To what end I’m not sure, but putting the MTV soundtrack aside, it seems as if writer/producer Cosby wanted to target an even younger audience than the original cartoon did with this hopelessly bland and saccharine tale. Although to be frank, this film would insult the intelligence of three year olds. Even Big Bird would hold out for hipper and edgier material.
The focus of the film is Doris, a latchkey high school student who suffers from low self-esteem that stems from her difficulty making friends. One afternoon, after being snubbed again by the popular crowd, she cries a tear that falls onto the TV remote as she’s watching Fat Albert. Albert (Kenan Thompson) somehow senses this, and he and the gang travel through a magically created portal out of Doris’s TV into the real world so that they can lend their assistance. Doris is alarmed by this turn of events, and urges them to go back into the TV. Unfortunately the broadcast ends before they can return, so they decide to hang out with Doris until the next day’s broadcast. (They couldn’t just pop in a Fat Albert DVD? They advertise them in the movie, after all!) They follow her to school and generally embarrass her, especially when Albert takes a liking to her foster sister, the hot and popular Laurie. Back in toonland, some rival punks announce their intention to take over the junkyard in Albert’s absence, to the great distress of Russell, who’s been left behind. Albert impresses Laurie by miraculously winning a footrace with very unintimidating school tough Reggie (B2K’s Omari Grandberry), and manages to get the haughty cheerleaders to invite the gang and Doris to their big party. Some of the gang become concerned that they’re starting to physically fade away from staying in the real world too long, but the others are having too good a time to care. At the party Albert wins over the crowd with a weak rap number based around the old theme song. Things continue to heat up between Albert and Laurie, and Rudy starts to take an interest in Doris. The next day a couple of the guys go back into the TV to help Russell, but Albert resolves to stay behind to wrap things up, causing friction with his rapidly fading comrades.
Without question Fat Albert‘s enduring success is completely thanks to Cosby’s colorful cast of characters and their wacky antics. Sadly, they did not survive the transition to the big screen. As Fat Albert himself, Thompson does a solid job, the only actor on the project who really earns his paycheck. As convincing as he is, though, he isn’t really given anything funny to say, which is most perplexing since this character is crying out to be exploited for laughs. The movie can’t even manage a fat joke beyond giggles at the title character’s name. Director Joel Zwick must have hired the first guys who walked in off the street to play the rest of the gang, because they are completely bland and completely fail to resemble the characters they are supposed to be portraying. Gone are the colorful, eccentric voices, replaced by lifeless delivery. This is the most white bread band of brothers since Vanilla Ice. Mushmouth doesn’t get the stutter right, he even loses it at one point (!) and seems more like a normal person than the partially lobotomized epileptic he is in the original. Dumb Donald is passable until he inexplicably takes off his hat to reveal model looks and preposterously becomes a bookworm. The worst offender is Rudy, who on the show is a cocky smart aleck and a self-alleged player. Here he is shy and stiff as a mannequin, with less personality. Zwick crows on the commentary that this was the cast he fought to get, and for that alone this halfwit should have been fired on the spot. One wonders if he ever even watched the show. It would be a 100% improvement if Cosby himself had just looped in all the voices. Honorable mention must be given to Mr. Grandberry, whose performance is as limp and laughable as his stage name is ridiculous. Even the Coz himself manages to be boring in his brief cameo.
In the film’s few animated segments the creaky Filmation cels of old have been replaced with the digital variety, and it comes out looking much smoother and classier, if not quite Disney level. But the characters dart about in a hyperactive manner that seems more appropriate for Looney Tunes. They look like their former selves, but have undergone makeovers to look more polished and attractive, which seems a bit off for a bunch of gawky, homely kids from the ghetto. In the opening scene you can see the character animation of several characters recycled as they play their instruments, perhaps in tribute to the original limited animation. Apparently combining live action and animated footage was beyond the film’s budget, so we don’t get any Roger Rabbit scenes. Still, the animation looks good and will probably be the only section of the film when tantalizing daydreams of root canals won’t dance through your head.
One can’t discuss Fat Albert without talking about the music, as that was such a major element of the original series. The show was full of energetic songs that mixed funk, Motown, rock and roll, and heavy-handed messages. If often overly preachy, they were always innocent fun and sometimes genuinely catchy. This time around all that has been replaced with a modern mix of rap and hip-hop. While I realize this is currently the most popular sort of music for urban teens, it still comes off as a bit too mature and off key for the very G-rated Albert and friends, who always prided themselves on playing their own instruments. At least, in a rare moment of clarity, the filmmakers take a shot at rap in a scene where the gang is watching its first rap video. When one asks, “They call that singing?” Dumb Donald responds, “No, they call that talking.” On the whole the soundtrack seems more intent on selling albums to today’s teenagers than really evoking the spirit of the show.
I’d like to say there were a couple of bright spots peeking out of the overwhelming gloom of this affair, but sadly the only real awe to be found is in how awful everything is. How low the combined IQ of the director and producer must have been to have watched the dailies for this monstrosity and think they had a winner on their hands. Most of the “humor” is fish-out-of-water jokes about the gang being perplexed by modern technology, and these grow tiresome immediately. In a moment of unintentional irony they are amazed to find a video arcade in a shopping mall, a phenomenon nearly extinct today but quite common back when the cartoon was still running in the early 80s. Sure the nostalgic rush of hearing the theme song at the beginning is fun, and at some points Thompson’s Albert is dead on, but I’m really grasping at straws here.
Par for the course, the special features are rather disappointing. There is a commentary from producer John Davis and Zwick, who quickly reveal that they’re as bland and unimaginative as the film they created. Not to mention that their horrible track record includes such gems as First Daughter, AVP, Garfield, Full House, and Webster. The extended scenes are two very short clips that, being no more staggeringly dull than the rest of the movie, leave one to wonder how they were singled out to be cut.
Even if you’re a fan of the cartoon, Thompson, Cosby, or fun family films in general, I would strongly advise that you avoid Fat Albert at all costs. The experience can be roughly equated to having one’s brain pounded with a sledgehammer for an hour and a half. At the end of it I had to learn how to tie my shoelaces again. We should go back to the old junkyard and bury every last copy of this film.