The Happytime Murders (2018)

Bill Barretta voices the top puppet character known as disgraced burnout Los Angeles-based private investigator Phil Phillips, who has to get to the bottom of a series of murders among the stars of a decades-old television show with a puppet cast of actors called, “The Happytime Gang”.  Melissa McCarthy gets the top human role, playing police detective Connie Edwards, Phil’s former, now estranged, partner in crime-fighting from his days on the force, who joins in to reluctantly assist.

The Happytime Murders dips into the vulgarities that worked well enough for other properties where cute and seemingly kid-friendly premises are used for some very vulgar, raunchy comedy.  From Meet the Feebles to South Park to “Avenue Q” to Team America to Ted to Sausage Party, there are plenty of examples to choose from, and in most cases, they have offered diminishing returns for audiences seeking a fun time.  The Happytime Murders feels like it is a few years too late to the dance to find any willing partners.  While it isn’t without an occasionally witty moment or funny concept, there is a distinct lack of freshness that comes with the attempt to make everything feel filthy for laughs, to the extent that it seems like it is the main point of the film altogether.

The plot itself is a typical buddy-cop comedy formula, mixed with elements of film noir and erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct (which this film refers to on about a half-dozen occasions) pitting together opposites who banter while trying to take down some outlandishly deviant criminals.  Unfortunately, most people in the audience for a raunchy puppet movie are likely too young to appreciate the allusions, rendering even more of the comedy as impotent in its attempt to find a funny connection with younger, modern viewers.  It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the first draft of the script had been written in the early 2000s, and that most of the pop culture references within the film strays far away from anything that may be going on in the world, or the world of movies, today.

Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, takes the directors chair in this effort that is not an official release by The Jim Henson Company, though he retains chairmanship of the company, and had used the brand before for an adult-oriented endeavor for their improvisational live show, “Puppet Up! – Uncensored”.  Henson goes full bore into the graphic material, perhaps thinking that the family-friendly label for  his father’s style of puppet-related entertainment is too limiting, offering shotgun blasts decapitating puppets into cloud of exploding fluff, or pornographic sex scenes that result in body fluids being shot by the gallon all around the room.  The worst part about the envelope pushing isn’t even the crudeness factor, but the notion itself that vicious physical and emotional cruelty toward puppets, or their overt sexualization, are just hilarious in and of themselves.

Jokes fall flat more often than not, such as a recurring gag where Melissa McCarthy’s character is mistaken as a man (the role had originally been written for a man), even though there is nothing at all masculine about her (had her appearance more closely resembled her character in Bridesmaids, this might have been at least passably believable).  The screenplay is credited to Todd Berger, a writer and director himself who also acts, concocting this world in which humans and puppets live together in the city (pretty much like any Muppet endeavor), but the puppets are clearly treated like second-class citizens, a la the humans and toons found within Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. While some may try to read into the film as a metaphor for racism, a la Alien Nation, whatever attempts to say more than what you’d expect from a raunchy comedy fall flat, as sexually graphic sight gags and some distastefully gruesome puppet violence flies across the screen to make you desensitized to the thematic material that may bubble up from time to time underneath.

In an effort to branch out beyond the Muppets to make puppet-related films appealing to today’s generation, Brian Henson has done the opposite, as most who see his film will likely recoil from ever wanting to see another film just like it.  Henson has not only tarnished his own reputation in the process of growing tired of having to always “play nice” for kids, but will also make some wonder if those who have vowed to continue Jim Henson’s legacy are in fact only seeking to exploit it by taking on such projects that their founder and creator had long since abandoned since in his experimental early days where his puppets weren’t aiming at entertaining just the young, regardless of the money that could be made.  Brian insists that his father had felt constrained after “Sesame Street” in making family projects and that his film picks up on a road his father had wanted to travel, if only he could.  If this is indeed the case, then perhaps those constraints did the world some good, as Jim Henson’s work, family friendly though it may be, will last the test of time, while The Happytime Murders is a film that will be overlooked by the masses, and those that have seen it will likely wish they could forget.

The Happytime Murders, while not entirely a disaster due to the talent of the puppeteers and vocal performances, is a tedious premise that fails primarily because it encroaches too far into repugnance to be able to keep its audience in the mood for laughter.  Compounded with comedic allusions to properties that you’d already have to have been an adult in the 1990s to get the gist of, it’s a call back to a time too distant to ever make the ninety minutes we spend with it feel like a ‘happy time’.

Qwipster’s rating: D+

MPAA Rated: R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material
Running Time: 91 min.

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale
Cameo: Ben Falcone, Brian Henson
Director: Brian Henson
Screenplay: Todd Berger

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