Most discussion involving The Happytime Murders is centered around calling it the worst film of the whole year. I don’t think that I’d go that far (Mile 22 was both exhausting and headache-inducing), but the adult puppet crime noir is certainly very disappointing. The concept of taking something that’s generally associated with children (such as animation or in this case, puppetry) and making it raunchy, lewd, and highly inappropriate, is nothing new or groundbreaking. There’s plenty of adult animated shows and Avenue Q did the whole swearing and sexual puppet thing as far back as 2003. The most recent example would be Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party, a film that was criticized a bit for acting like showing cartoons having sex and cursing up a storm was some kind of brand new concept, and relying too heavily on that one gag. The Happytime Murders falls under some of that same criticism, and the film completely lacks any sort of substance, something even Sausage Party had a little of.
The Happytime Murders takes place in a world inhabited by both humans and puppets, however the puppets are treated like second-class citizens. There are derogatory terms for them (such as “sock”), they’re viewed as unintelligent, you get the gist. The film’s main problem is that it introduces this idea of the world it takes place in and then has it go absolutely nowhere. The marginalization of puppets is something that keeps being brought up but barely affects the story being told. It could have been an interesting angle, but other than the main character, Phil Phillips (puppeteered and voiced by Bill Barretta) taking offense at any anti-puppet rhetoric, the concept falls flat. This isn’t exactly Zootopia or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Phil is a private investigator who used to be the first puppet cop. He left the force in disgrace after failing to shoot another puppet, effectively banning any kind of future for puppet cops once the public decides that “puppets won’t shoot other puppets”. Phil is a passable protagonist, but other than anger, he lacks a lot of emotional accessibility. Phil experiences several losses throughout the film, and the audience doesn’t get so much as a short scene where he reflects on those deaths. He seems to just move on rather quickly.
When all of the core cast members of The Happytime Gang (the first television series to prominently feature puppets) start showing up murdered one by one, Phil is brought out of retirement, and is forced to work with his old partner he no longer gets along with, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). McCarthy is up to her usual shtick here, but thankfully it’s a lot less physical comedy than usual. She’s always a good bit funnier to me when she’s allowed to let loose in an R-rated film, and she lets the crude insults fly in this one. There’s a running joke where everyone thinks that she’s a man (something that seems like a common thing in her movies), and it’s not even funny the first time. However, the film sure thinks that it’s a winner, because you get the hear it about a dozen more times. Connie is probably the most confusing character out of the bunch. She testified against Phil after the puppet incident, something that seems like a serious betrayal of friendship but is never apologized for and Phil never brings up. She has a puppet liver, something that makes her lament on whether she’s human or puppet (um….what?) and then never thinks about again. Finally, she has a self-confessed crippling sugar addiction (sugar is the puppet equivalent of cocaine), which, again, seems like something serious but is never resolved or discussed again after the second act.
The Happytime Murders feels like a giant wasted opportunity. Made by Henson Alternative (the mature content branch of the Jim Henson Company), and directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim and director of both The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, this kind of puppet film aimed at adults could have really brought back the artform into the public conscious. Sadly, the film is devoid of anything interesting or substantial. It leaves you with nothing to think about, and too many of the jokes fall short, with the genuinely funny ones being few and far between. It has little to say other than “isn’t it funny to see puppets say bad words and act sexual?”. Sure, that can be funny, but when there’s nothing to back all of that up, the result is a lifeless and dull experience. The good news is that the film flies right on by, and Maya Rudolph is in it, so you’ll at least be having a good time whenever she’s onscreen.
2.5 / 5 Stars
The Happytime Murders is now playing in theaters everywhere.