- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Bill Cosby has been on a tear in recent months, blasting segments of black society for everything from hostility to learning to permissive parenting.

What better time to bring ol’ Fat Albert, his animated voice of reason, back into the game?

Let’s get something straight. We need another cartoon-to-film translation like a fourth “Blade” or “Surviving Christmas: A New Beginning.”

That said, the live-action “Fat Albert” does its darnedest to duplicate the junkyard comedy’s moral compass.

The level of craft, alas, lets the big fella down. The film’s structure — our animated pals walk through the television into the real world — can only move the pedestrian story along so far.

Poor Doris (Kyla Pratt), a friendless high schooler snubbed by the coolest of the cool girls, is crying her eyes out on her couch. One of her tears drops on her television remote while she’s watching the 1970s-era “Fat Albert” cartoons on TV Land, and suddenly the show’s characters can hear her sniffles.

The animated Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson), an inveterate problem solver, reaches out to Doris through the television and ends up in the real world. His pals soon follow, stunning Doris and establishing the show’s characters in the year 2004.

The gang earnestly tries to rally Doris’ classmates to her side, while Fat Albert falls hard for Doris’ sister, the fetching Dania Ramirez (“She Hate Me”).

The boys don’t have much time to improve Doris’ social life. A day into their adventure they realize their brightly colored clothes are losing their luster, sort of like the black-and-white characters in “Pleasantville” turning technicolor. If they stay much longer in the real world, they’ll be reduced to celluloid dust, a certain guest star warns them in an appropriate cameo.

Children may enjoy the garish costumes and Fat Albert’s silly dance moves, but others will read much more into this live-action affair. Is Mr. Cosby trying to graft ‘50s-era sensibilities on today’s youth through his beloved creation?

The film milks the fish-out-of-water concept for all its worth, dragging the overwhelmed kids into modern shopping malls and showing them computers and cell phones. The scenes provoke a few adult-sized laughs and are rarely pushed too far.

Better still is how the Cosby kids win over their new friends without resorting to postmodern irony or cynical behavior. Plus, “Albert” performs a public service simply by not beating us over our heads with its worthy lessons.

Co-written by Mr. Cosby, “Fat Albert” avoids the modernization trap into which other cartoon translations often stumble. None of the characters belch, pass wind or otherwise embarrass themselves for an easy laugh. Fat Albert wouldn’t stand for it, and neither does Mr. Cosby.

The Cosby kids flirt with hip-hop and rap, but only the genre’s playful side. Don’t expect Mushmouth or Old Weird Harold to be pimping here.

Director Joel Zwick (2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) wrings the expected performances from his young leads, a group that collectively appears too old to play high schoolers. Each convincingly duplicates their characters’ tics, but such mimicry tends to yield small payoffs.

Mr. Thompson’s take on Fat Albert, beyond starting and ending every line of dialogue with “Hey, hey, hey,” captures the innocence of the part as well as his light physicality.

This big man can dance.

Although Forest Whitaker, the original director of the much-discussed project, bowed out after “creative differences” with Mr. Cosby, “Fat Albert” isn’t the groaner some feared. The wee ones may delight in the gang’s misadventures, but we suspect they’d be equally glued to the source cartoons.

***

WHAT: “Fat Albert”

RATING: PG (Mild slapstick violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Joel Zwick. Written by Bill Cosby and Charles Kipps, based on characters created by Mr. Cosby.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

WEB SITE: www.fatalbertthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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