Directed by: Joel Zwick
Starring: Kenan Thompson, Kyla Pratt, Dania Ramirez, Jermaine Williams
"Hey, hey, hey!" Fat Albert's become real, at least for a day. See him quick, I say, the big boy can't stay. Fadin' away, he is, fadin' away. "Hey, hey, hey!"
It's modern-day North Philly, a buzzing, energetic mecca so it seems, where multiethnic students live and study together in reasonable peacefulness and there's not an adult in sight. There's no need to be reminded of all the hard and violent times in the city's past, or to bring in any grownups to ruin the fun.
Doris Robertson (Kyla Pratt, The Seat Filler) has become depressed and isolated after the death of her beloved grandfather. Making the situation worse is the fact that her foster sister, Lauri (Dania Ramirez, She Hate Me), although grieving from the loss of her parents, has nevertheless maintained her self-confidence and earned lots of friends. In between classes one day, Doris comes home to watch TV. While feeling sorry for herself, her tears fall on the TV remote control and -- hey, hey, hey -- a cosmic morph occurs between real life and TV land.
Seeing Doris' sadness, the animated version of big-hearted Fat Albert charges from the cartoon junkyard through the TV set and becomes a real person (Kenan Thompson, TV's Saturday Night Live). Soon six other members of the Junkyard Kids follow, including Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams), Old Weird Harold (Aaron Frazier), Dumb Donald (Marques Houston), Bucky (Alphonso McAuley), Rudy (Sherack Anderson III) and Bill (Keith Robinson). Only little Russell remains behind.
Doris is terrified for a few minutes but then accepts having seven weird guys in very brightly colored outfits follow her around. Being from a 1970s cartoon series (based on Bill Cosby's memories of the '50s), there are lots of things that amaze the transformed kids -- from pop-top cans to laptop computers. But some things they're happy to know remain the same, such as loyalty to your buddies and the joys of jumping rope. Alas, the kids can't stay in real time; as the hours go by, they're losing their colors, so they have to find Doris a friend before they fade away.
Albert may be fat, but he's really fast and he wins a race against a cocky smart aleck named Reggie (rap artist Omarion). He also wins the heart of the lovely Lauri, who is very impressed with what a gentleman Albert is. And so am I, believe me. There's not one anti-woman sentiment in the entire film, and for that amazing accomplishment alone, Fat Albert should be high on parents' video-viewing list.
The real-life actors do a marvelous job of capturing their cartoon characters and giving some depth to their celluloid hearts. The notable exception is Bill, who, being based on Cosby himself, doesn't have enough eccentricities to make him laughable. It's also interesting that the only cartoon Junkyard Kid not to enter reality is the pint-sized Russell, a character based on Cosby's brother, who died in childhood.
Instead of slipping into his recent self-righteous scolding routine, in Fat Albert Cosby returns to the emotional wellspring of his childhood and tells a story based on old-fashioned moral values. It doesn't make for exciting drama. In fact, even with its energetic singing and dancing, Fat Albert is the most low-key children's movie out now, so you can actually watch it without getting light-headed. Most importantly, it's surprisingly sweet and charming, wholesomely funny, and tugs politely on the old heartstrings. The movie, you'll discover, is a touching tribute to Cosby's real-life friends, who appear in an unforgettable scene at the end.
Fat Albert might not be worth full-price theater fare, but it's definitely a do-see when it comes out on video. Rated PG for momentary language.
-- reviewed by Marci Miller