Despite good intentions, Fat Albert is a little too preachy to appeal to anyone but the youngest members of the audience, while the 1970s references to the cartoon--weak as they are--probably won't land on those same little ears.
"Hey, Hey, Hey--it's Fat Albert!" From the very first introductory line--voiced by Albert (Kenan Thompson) himself--you cringe just a little. It's like watching a good friend attempt a tough impersonation you hope he can pull off. The story hews close to what the cartoon
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids was always all about--a goofy gaggle of African-American kids making the best of growing up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. No matter what the trouble--runaways, drug use, juvenile delinquency--they managed to find a way to solve everyone's problems and bookend each episode with the contagiously upbeat "Na, na, na--gonna have a good time! Hey, hey, hey!" The same goes here--only in a modern twist, the problem to solve happens to be in the "real world." Doris (Kyla Pratt), a shy and lonely teenager, has a rough day at school where she learned she wasn't invited to a big party. She comes home to watch Fat Albert on TV Land, and a stray teardrop hits the remote control, creating a magical portal through which the animated Fat Albert, and gang decide to jump. Scaring the heck out of the bewildered Doris, the guys stumble out of the television set and take to their realistic surroundings, and mission, quite quickly. In short order, they set about trying to find Doris some new friends, much to her embarrassed chagrin, and along the way they try to make sense of modern day life with its perplexing cell phones, pull-top cans and rap music. Yet, the more time they spend in the real world, the more they fade away, their clothes becomes more washed out, and eventually they even seem transparent.
Thompson (Saturday Night Live) does as good a job as could be expected, embodying a classic cartoon character that has been etched into our minds for decades, known mainly for the booming voice, pounding footsteps and wide, red-shirted girth. He also has the unenviable task of imbuing the character within the actual storyline (not to mention sharing screen time with Bill Cosby himself, who quickly but effectively intones the classic phrase in a standout cameo). In the real world, Fat Albert falls in love; not with Doris, the girl he's helping, but her older sister, Lauri, (Dania Ramirez), who in turn has taken a shine to this selfless big lug. Thompson is also required to sing and dance and try his hand at rap (but we'll skip the part in which Albert races a malevolent track star who's jealous of his appeal--it's so out of place and unnecessarily fake-looking that it's best forgotten). Kyla Pratt also does a good job holding her own, playing the young Doris as one part hopeful, one part incredulous. The rest of the "Cosby kids" blend in with one another, if not for their single quirk or two: Jermaine Williams as the unintelligible Mushmouth; Keith D. Robinson as Bill, the level-headed one (essentially the young Bill Cosby); Alphonso McAuley as Bucky, with his protruding big teeth; Aaron A. Frazier as Old Weird Harold, tall with the big 'fro, and Marques B. Houston; as Dumb Donald, most of his face covered by a pulled down ski-cap with eye holes.
Already a lot has been said about Fat Albert's sitcom-like feel, which may, in fact, be appropriate given the source material, but meandering between the two plotlines, the story nevertheless feels as padded as Thompson's suit. Director Joel Zwick's (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) staging, style and attitude are clearly geared toward kids, who likely won't miss the lack of real wit in the bickering exchanges between the gang but who may not get the references, including the opening animation, styled just like the mid-1970s show. This movie's target audience has barely even heard of Theo and Rudy Huxtable, let alone Weird Harold, Mush Mouth and Dumb Donald. In the cartoon, Albert and the Cosby kids populated an urban world of fire hydrants, streetlamps, and garbage dumps that wasn't without a certain charm. The problem is that charm of the original doesn't work within the context of life today. Just slapping this colorful cast of characters into music video dance scenes doesn't do the job. One notable exception to the often unengaging quality of the movie is a brief visit Fat Albert makes to the real Bill Cosby. The legendary performer softens his curmudgeonly ways and puts forth a possible explanation for Albert's manifestation in reality, tying it in with the character's origin in his own head. It's an interesting tidbit, with a small payoff at the end.
Ranked on the lower end of television cartoon adaptations, goodwill toward the show or Cosby himself only gets you so far with Fat Albert. Older audiences may be surprised at just how blatant the message-driven quality of the show is, while younger audiences may be asking what the fuss is all about.