Hey Hey Hey! Judge Brett Cullum says Fat Albert the movie should go away!
"Hey! Hey! Hey! How'd I get this way?"
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was an awesome cartoon that I grew up watching, as I'm sure many people did in the '70s and '80s. It ran for over a decade (in a couple of forms), but it was always a great cartoon that promised "if you're not careful, you might learn something." So now we're in the new millennium. Kids today have been raised on totally different shows every Saturday morning. A live-action movie version of Fat Albert seems dated, and you have to ask who it could possibly be for? Kids won't care unless they watch reruns, and you can't make it adult enough to appeal to their parents. So why even bother? Well, they did; and hopefully the madness stops here with only one feature film.
The opening credits find us in Fat Albert's animated junkyard, but something's wrong. The characters all look funny, different than I remember. Albert looks inexplicably more like Al Roker from The Today Show than what I recall from the original cartoon. His whole gang has been "re-imagined" by new animators. Even their theme song has been updated slightly, with new singers and a new arrangement. Twenty seconds in, and I'm already disliking this movie because its messing with my childhood. The scene switches to some live-action sequences, and we are introduced to Doris (Kyla Pratt, One on One). She's an unpopular, lonely girl who seems to have lost her lease on life. She comes home from school to an empty house, and cries on to the remote control. Somehow her tears open up a gateway or portal through which Fat Albert and his gang can emerge from their 'toon setting into the real world. Sensing someone is in trouble and needs help, Albert climbs out of the television set in a slightly disturbing sequence that seems like an outtake from David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Before you can say "Hey! Hey! Hey! There's no way!," Kenan Thompson (Saturday Night Live) is standing in Doris's living room in a bright red fat suit, doing his best Bill Cosby-as-Fat Albert impersonation.
Soon the whole gang emerges—Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams, The Jersey), Old Weird Harold (Aaron A. Frazier, House of Sand and Fog), Bill (Keith D. Robinson, the "Green" one on The Power Rangers), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley, Joan of Arcadia), Dumb Donald (Marques Houston, You Got Served), and Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III, Hook). They all become real people dressed in cartoonish outfits. Their mission is to help Doris become more popular and win friends. In the process Albert falls for Doris's foster sister, Lauri (Dania Ramirez, She Hate Me). The gang plays the routine "fish out of water" scenario of kids from the '50s thrust into the modern day ("What's a mall?"). The problem is that when they stay in the real world they begin to fade. For some reason, they can only return when a syndicated rerun of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is playing on TV Land. (No word on what would happen if someone played the DVDs of the show they see for sale!) Can Fat Albert and the gang cheer Doris up and make her more popular? Will Lauri fall for the big guy? Can the guys get home before they fade away to a pile of celluloid dust?
There's too much going on here, but nothing we haven't seen before. Toons have invaded our world more successfully under Roger Rabbit's lead, and The Brady Bunch Movie already did this whole "we're from another time" scenario. Kenan Thompson does a spot-on Fat Albert voice, and it's uncanny when he does a scene with creator Bill Cosby and you hear his new voice coming at the original. Everybody in this mess seems to be having a good time (insert "na na na"s here), but it never goes anywhere. Doris is helped, sort of. Albert never really gets the girl. And then there's a very obvious ending, with a strange coda. The last scene has Cosby at the grave of the guy who inspired him to make Fat Albert. He's there with a group of friends you assume are the other guys who inspired his characters. At first it seems like a wonderful tribute, and reminds me of the scene where the survivors came to place rocks on a grave in Schindler's List. The only problem here? It's out of step with the whole cartoon vibe of the movie, and the guys shown are actors! Yes, only two of them are actually part of Cosby's high school gang. So it becomes a cheap maudlin device to wrap up the movie on a down note.
Joel Zwick was chosen to direct this film (replacing Forrest Whitaker, who left over creative differences) after his big independent hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He chose to keep the special effects down to a minimum, and really plays up the misguided romance between Albert and Lauri. They wanted to add this new element to the story, but it seems inappropriate here in a kid's movie. I never really wanted to see Fat Albert as a romantic lead, and it would be near the bottom of my list of things I would want to see out of the big screen Fat Albert. He seems to forget the show was about learning things, and the relationship of the friends in Albert's gang. That all gets thrown to the curb with the romance subplot. Would Fat Albert work today like he did when he was on the air as a cartoon? With childhood obesity currently a national concern, he seems dated and not the role model he once was. It doesn't help here that in Fat Albert he has no lessons to teach, and hardly seems effective at solving Doris's problem.
Fox gives Fat Albert some royal treatment with a solid DVD. The transfer of the film is very well done. Its colors are rendered well, and the black levels are spot on. It's a flipper disc with a widescreen and full screen version available on the facing sides. The audio is a robust 5.1 surround mix that does an admirable job. Special features include a quite lively commentary with Joel Zwick and his producer John Davis. This track is never dull, and almost seems more witty than the movie they both made. We get two "extended scenes," which are really just forty-second tags to scenes already in the movie. There's a cute "Behind the Band" feature, that again seems more witty and charming than the movie itself. My only unfulfilled wish—there are no interviews with Cosby, and no features that show the original cartoon in any form.
Certainly this is a safe movie for kids, and seems sweet enough. The PG rating is puzzling, since I rarely heard or saw anything that seemed even mildly offensive. But find me a kid under thirteen who is a fan of Fat Albert. He's not as big as he used to be. Adults are going to find this one tiresome, and a pale shadow of what they remember from their childhood Saturday mornings. There are quite a few excellent DVD packages of the original show, and unfortunately I would have liked to see those instead of Fat Albert the movie. And I have a bad feelings a lot of kids would be with me on this one. So "Hey! Hey! Hey! Let's find the old cartoons to play!" This one is just another example of the pointless remake that offers little of the original's charm. You just might learn that Fat Albert was better back in the day, so back into the television with him.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Joel Zwick and Producer John Davis
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