I don’t think I can get through this review without writing “Hey! Hey! Hey!” at least once, so I’ll just get it over with right here. For 20 years he’s been missing from his favorite junkyard. Now (Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!) Fat Albert is back, bigger than ever on the wide screen.
The story begins with Albert and the gang doing a new cartoon episode for TV. The story is interrupted, though, when a huge—human—tear falls from the real world into theirs. When it lands it creates a wormhole of sorts through which Albert sees teenager Doris Robertson crying quietly on her sofa. Being the problem solving kind of guy that he is, Albert wants to help her, so he launches his hefty girth through the hole—and through her TV set. In so doing he not only travels through time (from what is still the late ’70s in his cartoon world), but also transforms into a real boy. His pals tumble through the television vortex after him, and they quickly get to work checking out their new digs, and helping Doris “solve her problem.” A couple of them even fall head over heels in puppy love.
As the newness wears off, though, so does their color. Al & Co. begin to fade, and they soon realize they can’t stay in the real world very long. Doris and her sister, Lauri, have to get them back, pronto. But Albert doesn’t want to go! Will Bill Cosby let him stay?
The movie’s message is summed up in the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids theme song: “You’ll have some fun now with me and all the gang/Learning from each other while we do our thing!” Trying to help a despondent girl (while still in the cartoon world), Albert tells her she can’t just give up and run away. “Hey, hey, hey, don’t think that way,” he says to Doris when he realizes that she’s suffering from a bout of low self-esteem and doesn’t think she can be a good runner at the school track meet. “I’m sure that you can win, and I’m here to cheer you on.” Later he adds, “Just take a chance. Go for it!” Lauri chimes in by telling her sister, “You are not a loser.” (And it’s not the only time that she goes out of her way to try to help Doris, urging her not to give up and to believe in herself.) In turn, Albert tells Lauri that she can’t let fear of rejection, abandonment and loss keep her from caring about people.
There are a few other underlying themes that flow through the film. The first is that the only thing that matters is who a person is, not how he looks. The second is that when you try to be someone you’re not, you “lose the essence of who you are.” The third is that we, as a civilization, are in dire need of an injection of civility. We need to enjoy life and each other more, the movie says, instead of succumbing to the cynicism and isolation that have become such a mainstay. Popular kids should befriend unpopular kids. Jocks should hang out with brains. Etc. It also preaches manners and gallantry. Reprimanding the class bully, Reggie, for trying to kiss Doris when she doesn’t want to be kissed, Rudy says, “You’re like school on Saturday: no class.”
Listening to rap music for the first time at a record store, the guys are horrified by the words that they hear. (We don’t hear them.)
Bill Cosby explains to Albert that he came through the TV because he “felt her spirit.”
Albert and the other boys are oftentimes overwhelmed when in the presence of real girls, but their reactions never drift below the belt. When Dumb Donald tells Lauri she looks “tight” (he’s repeating a phrase he heard at the mall), Albert tells him not to talk about her that way. One of the guys briefly marvels over a frilly bra at a department store. One of Lauri’s tops could be considered a bit immodest. But the hip-hop dancing that’s done at a party is about the tamest exhibition (short of a country hoedown) this critic has ever seen onscreen.
A one-sided pillow fight is about as bad as it gets. When Albert comes through the TV, Doris whacks at his head with a throw pillow. Mushmouth’s head bangs into the picture tube when they try to toss him back into cartoon country. Albert takes a wild ride on a skateboard, knocking into people and things. After getting his fingers pinched by a closing (second-story) window, he crashes down into a pile of garbage. As a cartoon, a kid is thrown across the junkyard. To retaliate, he ties his (much larger) assailant’s shoes together, stomps on his foot, and then jumps up and down on his back when he falls down.
Albert exclaims, “Oh lord!” A shocked Mushmouth supposedly repeats vulgar lyrics he hears on a rap CD, but because he’s Mushmouth, nothing that he says is intelligible. (The same gag is used again in a later scene; both times he’s told to watch his mouth.)
While animated, Weird Harold’s pants come down twice, showing off his boxers. In the real world, when the seat of his pants wear away, the guys giggle over seeing someone’s rear end for the first time (It looks like it’s broken!” one says), but the camera stays far away, and the boys gather around Harold to keep others from seeing. Misfits in our modern world, the Cosby Kids are called “freaks” and “wackos.” Reggie uses Albert’s name against him numerous times, calling him a “fat fool.”
Leave it to Bill Cosby to preserve Fat Albert‘s innocence and ’70s-era Saturday-morning cartoon goofiness and charm. He and My Big Fat Greek Wedding director Joel Zwick deserve XXL kudos for refusing to give in to the “spice-it-up” temptation that has ruined many a cultural update.
Fat Albert and his crew don’t overlook our current cultural failures when they bring the best of their simple cartoon world into ours. Neither do they bludgeon us for them. Albert loves the grooves and rhythms of hip-hop, but it’s made clear that he and his pals are horrified by the meanspirited and misogynistic lyrics that are topping the charts. They briefly ooh and aah over indoor malls and cell phones, but then choose to spend their time teaching us that it’s how we treat each other that’s important, not what mediums we use to interact with and what spaces we occupy.
The lessons here are much simpler and more broadly themed than we’ve become accustomed to lately. Be kind. Play nice—even in high school. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Believe in yourself. Have good clean fun. By presenting them as gracefully as he does, Cosby (who co-wrote the script and served as an executive producer for the film) not only gives kids solid values to emulate, he makes us all do some wishful thinking about the days when children’s entertainment was (more often than not) children’s entertainment.