When Philadelphia teenager Doris (Kyla Pratt) cries in a moment of isolation and loneliness, a single tear falls on the TV remote in her handopening a window into the animated world of Fat Albert.
Although "Fat Albert" is smart enough to poke fun at itself (the gang can't drink soda because no one wrote that they were thirsty) director Joel Zwick ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") can't quite conjure up any modern relevance.
But it's tough to imagine who the audience might be for Bill Cosby's nostalgia project, given that the original characters appeared on TV from 1972 to 1984. Even children exposed to the tail end of its run would be 21 or olderdefinitely not the target audience for this film. The animated series doesn't even run on television anymore, though cable's TV Land aired "Fat Albert" episodes for the week leading up to the release of the film.
Cosby, who shares screenwriting credit with Charles Kipps and serves as executive producer, strays pretty far from the colloquial charm of the Fat Albert stories (based on his childhood friends) that were part of his 1960s standup comedy. Those routines still hold up, mostly because of Cosby's charismatic delivery and vocal talents. But in "Fat Albert," he has made a meta-movie, a film that leans on its audience's familiarity with the cartoon for laughs, and the results are uneven at best.
Moreover, "Fat Albert" represents Cosby's idealized worldview, one without the poor grammar and absentee parents for which he has recently so publicly criticized African-American communities. It's perhaps this tone that makes "Fat Albert" feel more like an after-school special than a feature film. (Given Cosby's criticisms, it's odd that "Fat Albert" is devoid of any parental presence, save the single note from Doris' mom on her refrigerator.)
As for the story, although I have a deep affection for Cosby's comedy records and grew up with the cartoons, I couldn't quite keep track of Fat Albert's friends: Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III), Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), Bill (Keith Robinson), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley), Old Weird Harold (Aaron Frazier) and Dumb Donald (Marques Houston). They all sort of blend into one pastel-attired mobthat is, until their colors start to fade, necessitating a retreat back into the TV.
There's still time for Fat Albert to develop a crush on Doris' foster sister and for Cosby to unveil a sweet memorial to his childhood buddies. But given Cosby's stature as a comedian, and the title character's ample screen presence, "Fat Albert" seems a little lightweight, even for a kids' movie.
Directed by Joel Zwick; screenplay by Bill Cosby and Charles Kipps; photographed by Paul Elliott; production design by Nina Ruscio; music by Richard Gibbs; art direction by Scott Meehan; produced by John Davis. A 20th Century Fox Pictures release; opens Saturday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: PG (momentary language).
Fat Albert - Kenan Thompson
Doris - Kyla Pratt
Rudy - Shedrack Anderson III
Mushmouth - Jermaine Williams
Bill - Keith Robinson
Bucky - Alphonso McAuley