When Avenue Q first opened off-Broadway, many theatergoers raised an arched eyebrow: a musical about puppets interacting with humans? Or more aptly, a musical about humans interacting with puppets having graphic sex while singing about the angst of graduating college with an English degree? How would that work? The answer, obviously, is smashingly well. Q is one of the funniest musicals ever produced, and I only bring up that initial apprehension because Henson Alternative’s The Happytime Murders is the antithesis of such a velvet rollout. Fifteen years later, here is the Great White Way’s worst fear made manifest in a crude, low-brow buddy cop laugher with little in the way of actual laughs. Half the cast might be stuffed with fluff, but their movie is filled with something far less pleasant.
To be fair, The Happytime Murders as a concept has an admirable ambition. Long having wanted to invest in an honest “alternative” appeal for their puppet expertise, it’s easy to see why the Jim Henson Company was attracted to writers Todd Berger and Dean Austin Robertson’s pitch for a raunchy noir “thriller” with puppets. Almost as long ago as Avenue Q, Trey Parker and Matt Stone had fantastic success with a gross and grossly hilarious satire of Bush era jingoism via naughty marionettes in Team America: World Police, and the noir setup proved to be one of the greatest virtues of Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the granddaddy of humans-and-childhood creatures interacting.
So taking a page from crime dramas like L.A. Confidential and Sunset Boulevard (or a rather twisted episode of Batman: The Animated Series), except with puppets, should lend itself to natural comedy. Unto itself the idea is inherently funny, even before you add a few well-placed F-bombs. The problem with The Happytime Murders is it’s nothing but F-bombs of questionable timing, plus drugs, booze, and extended sex scenes whose length denotes the filmmakers thought they were spitting comic fire. But in truth it’s all too tasteless to risk igniting even a smattering of laughter.
Set in a fictional world where humans and puppets share a sunny side Los Angeles, the main protagonist of the film is a hardboiled puppet P.I. named Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), an ex-cop burnout who has bad blood with his old partner still on the force, Det. Connie Edwards (a wasted Melissa McCarthy). It’s not immediately apparent what tore them apart, but it was so terrible that Phil is regarded as the puppet who both opened the door for felt cops and then slammed it shut.
Yet he gets his second chance when someone starts whacking the stars of a once beloved ‘90s sitcom called The Happytime Gang. Think a cross between The Muppets and Full House, the series starred a bunch of puppets, including Phil’s brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), and one human, Phil’s ex-flame Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). But when someone murders Larry by unleashing a pack of dogs in his Malibu home (a deadly weapon to puppets), it becomes clear that one by one everyone’s having their strings permanently cut. If Phil wants to get to the bottom of things, he and Connie have to make amends and figure out why the Happytime Gang are meeting unhappy ends.
There is a clever comedy somewhere inside The Happytime Murders’ setup, and not necessarily an R-rated one. As the concept already worked so well for Zemeckis 25 years ago, there’s not much here that needs to make Happytime adult other than the inclusion of painfully unfunny sex and cursing. The presentation of Happytime is so basic that its comedy isn’t any less uninspired. And time and again, this means it is going for the obvious joke that contains all the wit and surprise of a doodle in some middle schooler’s notebook. Less an intelligent rendering of gutter humor, such as South Park (also created by the Team America guys), this is the type of film one imagines that series’ Eric Cartman would produce.
Director Brian Henson is no stranger to puppet-led films, having directed millennial touchstones in the ‘90s like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. However, neither film can exactly be called the definitive cinematic rendering of those classic tales. Rather they’re flat enough to roll over a pleasant muppet romp atop those iconic narrative beats. Left to crafting his own storytelling devices though in Happytime, this same surface level approach begins slipping into sinkholes.
For instance, the film does little with the concept of adult-themed puppets living in a universe shared by humans. There are some token additions, like puppets considering dogs to be weapons, or instead of sniffing coke getting their kicks from high-concentrate sugar that would cause normal humans to slip into a diabetic coma. But by and large, their world looks blandly like our own, with the puppets primarily being a stand-in for any other marginalized group in urban life. In that way, it is reminiscent of Netflix’s Bright in its interminable refusal to say anything creative or interesting with its implicitly intriguing concept.
The Happytime Murders’ best moment is literally the end credits. And this is not to be glib; the movie’s closing credits feature its puppets, including a ginger-haired femme fatale, singing “I Want Candy” while behind-the-scenes B-roll footage shows the impressive intricacies with which these puppets were brought to life by skilled artists. The talent on display is dazzling. Unfortunately, it’s fluffing a pillow that is already torn and might as well be given to the dog.
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