The first surprise about Fat Albert—the big-screen incarnation of Bill Cosby's 1970s cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids—is the extent of Bill Cosby's involvement. As executive producer, co-writer (with Charles Kipps), and day player, the Cos is on the scene. Fat Albert's television antics were meant to give a flavor of ghetto life in North Philly: the Cosby Kids learned to stay upbeat with friendship and life lessons adopted from the pages of "The Brown Hornet" comic book. On the big screen, Fat Albert is a literal mass of contradictions.
When the big guy and his friends squeeze through the TV to help Philadelphia teen Doris, their supposed '70s squareness opens them to mockery. In fact, they all act more like the teens in a '50s family sitcom than the '70s cartoon, with ever-wholesome values and plastered smiles. "I solve problems," Fat Albert claims, though he's just this side of idiot savant, cheerily running around the high-school track and telling the teens (including pop star Aaron Carter in the role of "Teen") that they should feel good about themselves.
Strangely, Fat Albert is at least as oddly melancholy as it is sunny. Doris's problem is that she's friendless, and in the course of solving it, Fat Albert falls in love with Lauri (Dania Ramirez), Doris's foster sis. Since the primary colored Fat Albert and the Cosby kids are literally fading away the longer the stay out of the television, their love is doomed, as are the improvements the others find in the real world (babbling Mushmouth, for example, learns to speak the King's English). The inevitable reversion to their original characteristics: sexless, babbling, and the like is treated not as a "be yourself" lesson, but a mournful dose of reality.
Zwick includes well-realized animated passages, but they, too, draw attention to how Fat Albert is outdated. To see Weird Harold, in the opening sequence, grinning and plucking a home-made stand-up bass with his bare foot in his junkyard hangout is to question the efficacy of the whole Fat Albert enterprise. A later live-action sequence in which the Cosby kids rig up a makeshift car from the detritus of their hangout is amusing in a Little Rascals kind of way and, I suppose, represents the zenith of the Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Pleasantville pastiche that brings cartoon physics into contact with the real world.
When it's celebrating positive thinking, I suppose Fat Albert is counter-cultural, but director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding—what is it with the fat?) settles for the pedestrian, injecting an inordinate amount of dancing to disguise the lack of philosophy. Cosby and Kipps go for tired fish-out-of-water gags—what are these cell phones you speak of? Most offensively, the Fox film repeatedly plugs the Fox DVD release of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: the characters note a poster in a Main Street shop, which hardly ever seems to be out of frame.
The movie is essentially confused about whether the world of Fat Albert is real or phony, and the ultimate message seems to be that life is full of disappointment and heartbreak, so try to smile through it. Families can do worse, but the only adult appeal of this bittersweet, schizoid movie is nostalgia. "Hey hey hey," Fat Albert exclaims, "How did I get this way?"