Director: Brian Henson
Screenplay: Todd Berger
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks
Runtime: 91 Minutes
The main selling gimmick behind The Happytime Murders has been a fairly obvious one-note gag; the sight of otherwise child-friendly Jim Henson puppet designs saying and doing incredibly crass and vulgar things including sex, drug use and profanity in the context of a black comedy crime storyline pitched exclusively at adults.
This isn’t the first time something like this has been attempted as a means of perverting otherwise friendly beacons of family-friendly entertainment for the sake of comedy. Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles back in 1989 provided a similar service, but it’s lower rent scale and grungy aesthetic were in service of subverting the images of cuddly reinforcers of positivity in the aid of satire.
The Happytime Murders doesn’t really seem to be aiming for even those admittedly simple standards. In fact, the worst thing to be said of this latest Henson production is that beyond how oddly cheap and empty the film looks overall, it’s not really using its unique premise to say anything regarding its setup. That being that anthropomorphic puppets in this version of contemporary Los Angeles are considered second class citizens and entertainers when compared to human counterparts.
But it isn’t concerned with worldbuilding, or commentary, or much of anything to say really about the state of the real world or trying to make it about something more by playing with the tropes of the genre (the master of this continues to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). Instead, what we get here is an R-rated buddy comedy co-starring Melissa McCarthy that feels more in line with recent comedy exercises like Spy that happens to be using this setting.
On those parameters, it kind of holds together for the most part while being mostly disposable from a narrative perspective, where the joint police force must solve a recent murder spree of retired sitcom stars from a show called “The Happytime Gang”, a popular puppet sitcom from the 90s that was due to go into syndication (strangely prescient but never commented on).
Almost all of the humour is derived from that which was stated up front by the marketing, watching otherwise harmless looking felt puppets saying and doing naughty and gross things. They really go all out on the pitch at points, even venturing into the strange world of puppet on human pornography in one strange sequence. So the viewer's tolerance for the film will entirely depend on whether or not they will be able to take this as the only thing it’s offering – if you didn’t like the look of it from the trailers, you probably shouldn’t bother.
The two lead characters work even if they aren’t particularly deep or involving. Bill Barretta is good as Phil Philips, a disgraced ex-cop who is now a private investigator, and was the first puppet to become a police officer, but was fired from the force when he failed to take out another puppet assailant. McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards is as loud and motormouthed as she’s ever been, but it’s unfortunate that a majority of the gags involving her end up boiling down the various characters misidentifying her as a man which is just never, ever as funny as the film thinks it is.
But much of the film lives and dies on the shoulders of director Brian Henson. This is his first major feature film since Muppet Treasure Island over two decades ago, and while the puppetry and voice work from the cast and crew is excellently handled at points by these trained professionals, his manner of staging and lighting leaves everything in frame feeling oddly empty and sterile even in interior locations where these elements can be most controlled.
The Happytime Murders isn’t going to please those who were already rolling their eyes at the premise or promotional material, and it feels like something cut down into nothing but the gags that worked for test audiences and little more has made it through. But if you’re able to get on board with it’s gross-out angle and approach then you might find enjoyment in it, even while pining for it to be something more than it is.