What does a smart and socially savvy comedy writer, actor, and producer like Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, SNL host, Oscars host) do when he wants to say something relevant about the moral progress of humanity and deliver it to a large audience? Write it into the sequel of his wildly popular 2012 hit comedy film Ted, the story of a talking teddy bear (voiced by MacFarlane) and his lifelong buddy, John (played by Mark Wahlberg).
Unlike most sequels, Ted 2 surpasses the original on every level, starting with a glittery opening sequence of a tuxedoed Ted dancing to "Steppin' Out With My Baby" alongside dozens of glittery dancers like a scene from a 1950s Hollywood extravaganza (a nod to MacFarlane's love of big band music, evident at the film's after-screening party that featured a 20-piece orchestra). Mark Wahlberg's John is now divorced and holed up in a bachelor's apartment not yet ready to date again, while Ted is married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), his friend (with benefits) at the supermarket from the first installment. To save their failing marriage the couple decide to have a baby, but of course Ted's DNA is of the wrong species, so the two hatch the insane (and insanely funny) idea of stealing NFL quarterback Tom Brady's jizz by sneaking into his bedroom at night for some handy hanky panky.
When that fails, Wahlberg volunteers his, and the two end up at a sperm bank where such donations are made in a little room (with or without porn?). This too doesn't work out, in part because of the antics the two engage in during a scene in the sperm storage room, so the erstwhile couple decide to adopt.
The morality play unfolds when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts determines that a teddy bear -- even a foul-mouthed talking one -- is property, not a person, and property cannot adopt a child, much less be married, so the rest of the film follows the legal battle to grant Ted personhood status, and herein the audience gets a friendly (and funny) dose of moral history and philosophy, since at one point in our country's past members of our own species were considered to be property and not persons. (No, blacks were never considered to be "three-fifths" of a person -- the Three-Fifths Compromise made during the 1787 Constitutional Convention was over how slaves should be counted in the determination of a state's total population, which in turn was used to determine legislative representation in Congress. Slaves never had three-fifths rights as persons.) Morgan Freeman's civil rights attorney reluctantly takes the case after much moral persuasion by Amanda Seyfried's young lawyer Samantha, with references to Dred Scott, the slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1857 after moving to a slave-free state and marrying a free black woman. The legal journey turns into a road trip that includes a remake of the hilarious scene out of the 1987 film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, where Ted riffs off Ray Charles' "Mess Around" while driving recklessly down the highway, pace John Candy's brilliantly funny routine from that classic comedy that holds up still after almost 30 years (my wife had not seen that film, so I Netflixed it and we laughed til our sides hurt watching it after the Ted 2 screening).
If a sentient being who can talk and think and love (and tell dirty jokes) is not considered a person, then -- Samantha asks in a dramatic courtroom scene -- "Who gets subjugated after the bear?"
It's a good question, and as it turns out (quite by chance), it comes on the day that the Supreme Court announced their epic decision to make same-sex marriage the law of the land. By all accounts, Ted appears to be a straight bear, but if he did want to marry Steve instead of Eve (as in the sophomoric refrain "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"), it would now be legal. Perhaps this could be a subplot of Ted 3, but until then enjoy this immensely funny and (at the same time) thoughtful paean to progress. At this time of racial tensions in the land it is good to put specific incidents (e.g., Ferguson) into context and remember how far we've come from the bad old days not that long ago when two members of our species who were in love were not allowed to marry if they had different skin color. That's moral progress, as I documented it in The Moral Arc, and it's a pleasant surprise to find a similar message in a light-hearted comedy. Cultural transformations on such issues as personhood and same-sex marriage come about from all of us working from the bottom up and the top down to expand the moral sphere to include more people -- and even animals -- in our consideration of who (or what) is worthy of dignity and respect.