Most people grow up watching puppets reciting the ABCs or counting to ten. The Happytime Murders takes the audience’s childhood expectations and completely obliterates them. Full of violence and extremely graphic sex scenes, The Happytime Murders subverts all expectations associated with a puppet movie and tries to find an adult lesson in a very adult film.
Existing in a world where puppets and humans cohabitate and centering on the murders of The Happytime Gang, the cast of old syndicated television show, the film finds its hero in puppet ex-cop Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). As each Happytime cast member dies, Phil must put aside his own past and societal issues to solve the murders with his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and his secretary Bubbles (a delightful Maya Rudolph).
The puppeteering in this film alone is masterful, as it should be with high pedigree at its helm. Directed by Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and produced by STXfilms and Henson Alternative, the technical puppet work is wonderful, with fluid movement and mostly well rounded characters. One of the most delightful parts of the film is seeing the puppeteers in action during the credits. Many members of the crew worked on Sesame Street or the Muppet films, so you know what you are seeing is good. However, it is jarring to see an octopus sexually milking a cow in a style of puppetry from your childhood. The audience’s inability to separate the nostalgia from the film provide shock value, but it often gets in the way of the heart of the film.
The cast is incredibly funny. Melissa McCarthy provides a solid performance in the “angry female cop with a drug habit trying to fit into a male dominated field” archetype. Maya Rudolph is arguably the best part of the film, playing the ditzy yet sweet secretary with a soft spot for her boss. Bill Barretta’s Phil Phillips provides crass humor and quippy one liners that solicit gasps and shock value laughter from the audience. However, the relationship between McCarthy and Phillips, arguably the most important relationship in the film, falls short. Their chemistry does not feel consistent and therefore the emotional stakes in the film do not feel as high as they should.
Most of the noir film’s issues lie within the story, script and editing. Some plot points are predictable and noir troupes are heavily relied on. A running theme throughout is the discrimination of puppets and the film tries desperately to connect that thread to modern day sexism and racism. However, any allegory to racism, sexism, or any other “ism” is lost in a sea of sex jokes and lack of emotional connection between human and puppet characters. The pacing is not consistent, lulling at pivotal points and speeding through emotional beats, including the ending.
The Happytime Murders is funny, features solid performances by humans and puppeteers alike, and innovates puppeteering. However, the film lacks what Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, several Muppet movies, and even the T.V show Big Mouthhave been able to portray. What makes those productions so special is the heart behind humor. There is a way to make a filthy crude comedy with heart that creates empathy for its characters. Unfortunately, The Happytime Murders cannot stand on its own in that regard, making it fall flat.
FINAL GRADE: C+