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Fat Albert (2004)

There are two potentially great movies hidden inside the ridiculous 2004 Fat Albert film. The first can be found in its animation sequences, which update the flat look of the original '70s "Fat Albert" TV show with a fluid new style that recalls Disney's "The Proud Family." It looks great, and it makes one remember that the original cartoon — about a bunch of kids learning life lessons in a North Philly junkyard — was deeply humane and, thanks to voice work by Bill Cosby, really, really funny. The second can be found in a strange ending scene, where Cosby and the apparent real-life guys who inspired the junkyard gang lay flowers at the grave of the real "Fat" Albert Robertson. It's a poignant moment — one that gets us thinking about the real lives behind the cartoon. Unfortunately, that isn't the movie that flopped its way into multiplexes in early 2005. Instead, co-writer Cosby and director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) have decided to ignore all this rich source material; rather than making a movie about Fat Albert, they've decided to make a movie that comments on the "Fat Albert" TV series. For anyone who cares about these characters, it's a disastrous, stunningly spectacular miscalculation. Certainly, Cosby is still a vital force on the stand-up circuit, and recent headlines have shown he still has provocative opinions about race and responsibility in America. All that brio could have been gently worked into a family film about the North Philly junkyard gang. So why?

  • Why did anyone think there was a better story in having the cartoon Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson) and his gang pop out of the TV into the real world, thanks to the supernatural power of a little girl's tears hitting a remote?
  • Why did anyone think it would be funnier to watch a bunch of postmodern, self-referential gags — up to and including a scene where the Cosby Kids gaze at a poster for their own DVD collection?
  • Why did they think we'd want to hear an updated rap version of that peerless piece of '70s cartoon funk-rock, the "Fat Albert" theme song?
  • Why did they think we'd want to see a succession of doofy set pieces that includes (no kidding) a musical montage where Fat Albert tries on a succession of funny hats?
  • Why is Rudy (Shedrack Anderson III), such a badass in the cartoon, a flavorless twerp in the real world?
  • Why did they think we'd want to watch a teenage hottie (Dania Ramirez) give the normally unflappable Albert body-image issues — to the degree that he tries to get himself re-dubbed "Big Al"?
  • Why did they think we'd want to watch the Cosby Kids, trapped in the real world (and separated from Russell, the funniest character!) slowly fading like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future?
  • Why, when faced with the fact of their fading from view, does one of the Cosby Kids say something like, "We're fading away because we were trying to become something we're not" — a phrase that accidentally but totally accurately sums up the conceptual problem with this movie?
  • Why do the Cosby Kids start improving themselves in the real world — Weird Harold gets coordinated, Dumb Donald gets smart, Mushmouth learns to speak clearly — and then, inexplicably, decide that they "don't belong here," as if improving yourself was a bad thing for a kid from a North Philly cartoon junkyard to do?
  • Why, ultimately, has Fat Albert risked permanent death just so he can encourage our teen heroine (Kyla Pratt) to win a track meet?
  • And why did they think anyone would want to watch a "Fat Albert" adaptation that can't answer a simple question: "Who is this movie for?"

Fox's DVD release of Fat Albert offers both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame transfers on opposite sides of the disc. Supplements include a commentary by director Joel Zwick and producer John Davis, two extended scenes, the theatrical trailer, and promos for other Fox titles. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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