Just before the closing credits on director Brian Henson’s (son of the late Jim Henson, the Muppets creator) latest film The Happytime Murders begin to roll, a compilation of footage is shown that is part blooper reel, part making-of clips. It’s easily the most interesting part of the entire hard-R-rated movie. The technical achievements on display are undeniably impressive; these aren’t the same Muppets from “Sesame Street” or various Muppets television series and films. Puppeteers are decked out in green body suits so they can be erased later, but the resulting images have humans and Muppets walking side by side down the street. The idea of being able to see the entire puppet form including feet would once have been impossible, and purists may think it’s unnecessary, but the spectacle impressed me.
Sadly, those are the limits of where my good feelings land on this infantile, largely unfunny work that is trying about as hard as it can to entertain us, missing the mark far more often than not. Using what is essentially an updated film noir formula, The Happytime Murders (written by Todd Berger) concerns a world in which humans and puppets do indeed share the same world, but puppets are seen as inferior and frequently harassed in ways that may feel all too familiar in today’s world. Of course, the idea of this imbalanced co-existence is taken right from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but that’s the least of this film’s violations.
Former LAPD officer Phil Phillips (a puppet voiced and operated by Bill Barretta) is now a private detective after an incident that made him both the first and last puppet police officer on the force (puppets were deemed too sensitive for police work after the mysterious incident). A new female client (Dorient Davies) comes in to hire Phillips for what seems like a simple job, but perhaps not coincidentally, cast members of the ’80s television series “Happytime” (the first show with both humans and puppets in the cast) start being killed off, including Phillips’ brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid).
Since Phil always seems to be in close proximity to where these hits are taking place, his old boss, Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker), decides to bring him in as a consultant and re-team him with his old partner, Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). On the surface, McCarthy seems like a perfect, animated, comedic foil to work alongside Muppets, but far too often, she seems to be riffing aimlessly and flailing in a way that’s more desperate than biting.
There is no denying that The Happytime Murders takes full advantage of its R rating, with an avalanche of four-letter words, inappropriate humor and even an extended visit to an adult puppet video store/sex shop with probably hundreds of porn titles on the wall, tweaked to the puppet marketplace. The film also finds a really unique way to use Silly String to wrap up a sex scene between two of its felty characters. Some of these moments are amusing, but the temptation to laugh big happens so infrequently, it becomes almost uncomfortable to think of all of the genuine artists who made this movie having to subject themselves to such pedestrian material.
Also on hand is the usually reliable Elizabeth Banks as Jenny, the one human cast member of “Happytime” and a former lover of Phillips. She’s given so little to do here that it’s almost painful to see her. Faring slightly better is Maya Rudolph as Phillips’ office assistant Bubbles, who has a bit of a crush on the boss and does a spot-on impersonation of a ’40s-style loyal dame with a heart of gold that the boss will likely ignore romantically until the very end of the film. What seems to be lacking in The Happytime Murders is inspiration. The elements are there for a really funny movie—a Jim Thompson story done with Muppets would be amazing—so the film is not only bad; it’s a huge disappointment. And the few things that actually do work are so few and far between that they only emphasize just what a colossal missed opportunity the film truly is.
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