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Updated 'Fat Albert' is well-meaning but plot is a little flabby

Tired of talking about what's wrong with young black America, Bill Cosby has gone out and made something that celebrates what's right about it. And all he had to do was take ''Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" out of mothballs and turn it into a live-action movie.

In ''Fat Albert," our tubby title hero (played by the agreeable Kenan Thompson of ''Saturday Night Live") and his merry gang make the jump from the '70s 'toon world with the help of poor mistreated Doris (Kyla Pratt). She wants a little acceptance at her high school, but another sarcastic rejection from the popular girls sends her home despondent.

As she sits in front of the TV, her tears short-circuit the remote and create a portal in the ''Fat Albert" episode she's watching. On the other side of the screen, Fat Albert senses that Doris's whimpering means he and the gang should leave their junkyard, climb through the portal, and help her out.

Soon, Doris is stuck with this band of clueless ex-cartoons, and we're stuck with their dull educational adventures. Pity the parent-small-child combo that doesn't appreciate the movie's toasty message of building Olympic self-esteem. But while it means well, ''Fat Albert" (opening tomorrow) is ultimately just innocuous.

The animated show went off the air 20 years ago, so there's a lot of catching up for Albert and the gang to do. While stalking the understandably embarrassed Doris (Pratt, by the way, is very good), the kids discover soda, cellphones, the mall, rapping, block parties, computers, jumping double-dutch, and that their show is about to come out on DVD, or ''divda," as Bucky (Alphonso McAuley) calls it.

Albert also discovers girls. He's got a crush on Doris's Latina foster sister Lauri (Dania Ramirez), a cheerleader who doesn't mind that Albert wears a fat suit. He's also way more appealing than the school bully (Omari Grandberry), who has one randy eye on her and a jealous one on Albert.

For the Cosby Kids, though, the pleasures of a 3-D world have limits. The vibrant colors of the boys' sweaters, pants, hats, and shirts are starting to fade, and they can't jump back inside the TV set until the show airs the next day. They have to hurry because, in several listless cutaways to a cartoon subplot, Rusty is about to face the junkyard bully in a game regrettably called ''buck-buck."

That doesn't leave much time for Albert to help Doris fit in or for anything else. But darned if illiterate Dumb Donald (Marques Houston) doesn't take off the ski cap that covers his face and learn to read. A little tyke even teaches subarticulate Mushmouth (Jermaine Williams) how to talk. And suddenly clumsy, uncoordinated Old Weird Harold (Aaron Frazier) can dunk. This extreme makeover stuff does have a limit: Fat Albert, for one, does not discover the South Beach diet.

To go along with the movie's commendable optimism, we get some halfhearted commentary from Cosby, who created the cartoon, co-wrote the live-action screenplay, and turns up in a cameo, feigning Dr. Frankenstein-level astonishment when his tubby creation rings his doorbell. But the movie isn't as outspoken as Cosby has been lately about young America's need for good parenting and decent role models -- Doris and Lauri's mother and father aren't even around, meaning that for at least a day, the sisters are more or less being looked after by the television.

In the end, it's hard to see a real reason for the movie's existence. We already have Muppets. Director Joel Zwick, the man responsible for ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding," doesn't so much enliven the action as concentrate on cranking out a wildly sanitized product. The movie's North Philadelphia setting is an antiseptically multicultural soundstage -- the urban feels suburban, and most of the actors have Hollywood accents. Realism, though, is obviously beside the point.

So why not do something inspired with the discrepancy between the way things are and the way Cosby would like them to be, between new school and old? Why not have his innocent, uncool African-American kids stand up to the toxic, blinged-up, hip-hop culture that bugs Cosby so? That movie might not be good, either, but it'd be a lot more interesting. Maybe in the inevitable sequel, Fat Albert can reform Fat Joe.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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