I’m old enough to remember the days of “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids”, one of my regular Saturday morning cartoons for a great deal of my youth. Each week Fat Albert and his friends would hang out in the junkyard, watch the Brown Hornet on tv, solve a problem, and even learn a lesson or two along the way. Unfortunately more than twenty years have passed and the characters from the show have been left behind. Fat Albert the movie proves they should have remained there.
How do you deal with characters that are over twenty years out of date? Fat Albert, like some other movies, presents the characters as fish out of water and allows the audience to watch them adjust to the modern day world after escaping from their cartoon. Yes, you read that right - escape from their cartoon.
That’s how the movie deals with characters that are so badly one dimensional. Rather than build these characters up or build a world around them, Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson) and his friends are actually cartoon characters. One day in the real world Doris (Kyla Pratt) comes home from school upset and puts on her favorite cartoon. As her tears fall on the remote, Fat Albert hears her cries and comes out of the television to solve the girl’s problem (after all, that’s what he does). This gives him and his friends a chance to discover shopping malls, rap music, and computers.
As Fat Albert and his friends spend time in the real world, they get the chance to become more than they are in their cartoon universe. Dumb Donald (Marques Houston) can become smart, Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams) can speak clearly, and Fat Albert can earn the affections of a hot young girl - Doris’s sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez). They also begin to “fade” though and as their colors begin to deteriorate they realize they aren’t meant for the real world and they need to get back to their cartoon universe, but not before they solve Doris’s problem.
What worked for a couple of scenes in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Encino Man isn’t strong enough to hold an entire movie, and that’s just the beginning of the issues Fat Albert has. That’s a serious problem though, since it is a large part of the story. Not to be left out though, none of the other parts of the story work either. Fat Albert and his friends are there to solve Doris’s problem, but her main problem is how she rejects anyone’s attempts to be her friend, including Fat Albert. As the movie never really overcomes that obstacle, it’s difficult for the film to move forward at any point, and it never really does. In fact, one of the film’s crucial moments (which is shown in the trailer so I’m not spoiling anything by mentioning it) is when Fat Albert goes to visit Bill Cosby himself. There is a key piece of information given in that scene that explains part of the movie and helps the film move from that point to the end. The problem with the scene is there is really no set up for Fat Albert doing that. One minute something unrelated is going on, and then the next minute Fat Albert walks up to Bill Cosby’s sizable door. It’s a total jump in the story with no rhyme or reason given to it.
None of the characters - Fat Albert and his years of history included - are strong enough to hold interest through the course of the movie. Most of the Cosby Kids look similar to their animated counterparts, but don’t have half the charm or appeal of the characters as they were twenty years ago. In other words, they look the part, but it’s only skin deep. Because of this the main characters spend a lot of time mugging in an effort to look like a real version of their cartoon stance, walk, or facial expression, only to ruin it when the time comes for lines to be delivered.
Of course some of that appearance is aided by the fact that the cartoon characters were altered to make them appear more like their human counterparts. The newer animation is very cheap looking, and that’s saying something given that the original animation was done by Filmation, who loved reusing the same footage over and over. The result is an animated Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids that doesn’t really look like the characters of old. Given that the original voices were provided by Bill Cosby for the most part, and the actors voice their characters here, the animated characters don’t sound the same either. Kenan Thompson has a particularly tough time keeping the Fat Albert voice going, and drops the deep voice from time to time in favor of a softer tone that doesn’t work.
If story issues and character problems weren’t enough, director Joel Zwick seems to return to his sitcom roots in his direction and cinematic choices (after his success with My Big Fat Greek Wedding). Rather than frame up shots to allow multiple characters to speak, he often sweeps the camera back and forth to catch dialog, resulting in a dizzying effect. Quick camera moves like that might work for television, but they aren’t well suited for a movie.
Watching this presentation of Fat Albert, you'd think Bill Cosby would be cringing somewhere in fear of what they’ve done to his character - a character that filled Cosby’s goals of presenting a positive role model and face for African American youth. Unfortunately you'd would be wrong. Cosby is credited as a writer on the film (hiding behind one of his many alternate names) and given his on screen involvement as well, you have to assume he's to blame for more than just the characters. For the DVD release, the cover even offers his face peeking over poster art and the declaration, “from the comedic mind of Bill Cosby”, which just goes to show how age affects the mind. Sorry Bill, with this film you undid half of your career, but that’s okay - it’s still better than Leonard Part 6.
We have a general rule here about reviewing movies, that people who cover the theatrical release of a movie can’t cover the DVD release. Never have I wished I had covered a movie in the theater more than I do with Fat Albert. You see, for a theatrical release you go and see the film in the theater. For a DVD release you have to explore all the extra features, which also sometimes means watching the film (in part or entirety) several times if those extras require it. Watching Fat Albert once was painful enough. Having to watch bonus material on it just added lemon juice and a bit of tabasco to the wound.
Thankfully the bonus features on the disc are rather sparse. There are two deleted scenes and a commentary track, and then Fox has seen fit to cram every other corner of the disc with advertisements for other Fox movies, whether they be the ads for existing DVDs, or the “Inside Look” at the upcoming theatrical releases of Ice Age 2 and Rebound. These inside looks are extremely short, which is unfortunate because information on Ice Age 2 has been hard to come by. You’d think Fox would use this as a chance to get some word out there, but really it’s just a hint at things to come.
While the deleted scenes (or “extended scenes” as they call them) are useless, the commentary track is particularly painful. Partly because it involves watching the movie again, and also because director Joel Zwick and producer John Davis see fit to run a play by play on the movie as well as offer tasty nuggets like ‘they made this movie because they loved the cartoon’ - so why does this film ruin everything that made the cartoon good? The commentary is offered as if the two have no idea just how bad a job they did creating this movie, and what a disservice they’ve done to these characters. As you listen to the commentary you realize more and more what a part Zwick had in the story even though he isn’t credited. The worst part of it all is when the closest thing the film has to a touching moment comes, and the two discredit it entirely. Such a shame.
After returning the disc to the rental place (I’d be damned if I was going to buy this one, and Fox didn’t send a screener as they said they would - perhaps they knew what sort of response it would get) I noticed a featurette included on the list of extras. “Fat Albert: Behind the Band” is listed as being on the disc, but I didn’t see it. Perhaps it’s only offered on the fullscreen side of the flipper disc. It’s nice to see both fullscreen and widescreen versions of the movie offered in one package, but perhaps they should do a better job at pointing out if extras are only located on one side. I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who never touch a fullscreen side if they don’t have to.
Finally I have to mention the transfer of the film. Originally I wasn’t going to say anything because I just got a new television and I thought what looked like a bad image might just be me adjusting to a new set. Then I realized those trailers Fox has littered the disc with were all crystal clear, where the movie had some artifacting, particularly dealing with the bright colors of the Cosby kid gang. Now red has never reproduced well on television, and that is the main color of Fat Albert’s clothing, but it was more than just his shirt. The whole film looked grainy, and I stopped the movie several times to reconfigure my television set. In the end though, I’m pretty sure the film could have used a better transfer since, as I said, the trailers as well as some other movies I’ve watched since then looked great.
As a critic it’s really hard to face a good DVD release of a bad movie, because you find yourself wondering what happened to all of the lost potential. This project suffers no such issues. It was a bad concept and a bad execution, from script to screen and every step in between, so why should the DVD release be any different. Avoid this one like you’d avoid Fat Albert after a bean burrito.