The Happytime Murders mines all its comedy from R-rated puppet antics and Melissa McCarthy's typical schtick, but the jokes quickly wear thin.
Jim Henson and his puppets have had a lasting and undeniable impact on the entertainment industry. From staples of children's television like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show to darker fare like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, generations of young viewers grew up watching Henson-style puppets and content created by the man himself. His legacy lives on with the continuation of Sesame Street and other Muppet properties, and now with the feature-length film The Happytime Murders. Produced by Henson Alternative, a banner that creates media for adults within the larger Jim Henson Company, The Happytime Murders draws on noir-style detective mysteries for an adult comedic take on Henson's puppets. The Happytime Murders mines all its comedy from R-rated puppet antics and Melissa McCarthy's typical schtick, but the jokes quickly wear thin.
The Happytime Murders follows former police detective - and first puppet cop - Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), who works as a private investigator in Los Angeles, California. However, while investigating an extortion threat, Phil stumbles into a murder scene. Soon after, his own brother Larry Shenanigans (Victor Yerrid) is murdered, and Phil makes the connection that the murderer is targeting cast members of the '80s television show The Happytime Gang. To solve the case, Phil must work with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), but the two haven't gotten along since Phil left the department in disgrace 12 years prior.
However, when more cast members of The Happytime Gang are murdered, Phil and Connie resolve to work together. Unfortunately, Phil's ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) is next on the list and he's determined to protect her. As Phil and Connie get closer to discovering the serial killer responsible for the murders, they dive deeper into the world of sugar addiction that plagues puppets, all while being forced to confront the realities of a world in which puppets are second-class citizens to humans. The investigation takes a turn for the worse when FBI Agent Campbell (Joel McHale) starts interfering, and Phil and Connie find they need all the help they can get - including from Phil's secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). Still, it remains to be seen if they'll be able to solve the case of the Happytime Murders before it's too late.
Directed by Jim Henson's son Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol), the movie's logistics greatly benefit from having a director who's familiar with puppeteering. The Happytime Murders is, for the most part, effective in portraying the puppets of its world as sentient beings - even if the actual details of the mythology don't hold up to much scrutiny. Still, it's clear that The Happytime Murders wanted to portray a version of L.A. where humans and puppets coexist side by side and that world believably comes to life thanks to the work of Henson and the film's team of puppeteers. However, The Happytime Murders script by Todd Berger (Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters, It's A Disaster), from a story by Burger and Dee Austin Robertson (I Kill Flowers to Save the World), leaves something to be desired.
While the story of The Happytime Murders is structured like a classic noir detective mystery, complete with a voiceover performed by Phil narrating the events of the film, the crime investigation aspect of the movie is pretty standard. It hits all the usual beats of a murder mystery and even the third act twist is predictable enough that it feels less surprising and more like a another story beat to check off. The Happytime Murders also clumsily tries to use its puppet-filled world as a metaphor for classism, racism and sexism in modern America, as puppets are persecuted and made to be the butt of offensive jokes. However, those themes aren't really developed and are largely forgotten once the murder mystery storyline kicks into gear. Instead, positioning the puppets as a race that has been historically persecuted is more offensive and ridiculous than the smart social commentary The Happytime Murders clearly wants its audience to believe it is.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the movie is the odd couple pairing of Barretta's Phil and McCarthy's Connie. Their dynamic works well during the brief glimpses of a funnier movie, but it's heavily weighed down by The Happytime Murders insisting the funniest joke is a puppet at the center of R-rated antics - swearing, doing drugs, being murdered or having sex - and McCarthy's usual schtick. She yells shrilly, partakes in some of the R-rated shenanigans, and is the butt of many jokes about how she looks like a man. (What is it with McCarthy's movies always trying to make jokes about her looking like a man, anyway?) Still, beyond McCarthy and Barretta, the cast has some strong hitters. Both Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph are so earnest and hilarious it feels as if they're in a different movie; though they have much smaller roles, they nail their performances as Jenny and Bubbles, respectively. Additionally, as previously stated, the puppeteers excel in bringing the individual puppet characters to life in The Happytime Murders.
Ultimately, The Happytime Murders comes across as if someone cracked the joke, "What if we made an R-rated Muppet movie?" and the entire story, script and cast was created from there. Throughout the entire film, the characters are put into various situations that would be crude or violent if depicted with humans, but are meant to be funny for the sole reason that they're depicted with puppets. To the film's credit, the trailers for The Happytime Murders made it seem as though that's exactly what to expect from the puppet murder mystery. So The Happytime Murders will likely be exactly what moviegoers are expecting based on the trailers for the film, but that also means the movie doesn't try to do anything truly revolutionary - beyond, perhaps, the technical skill of bringing the puppets in the movie to life.
As such, those who were intrigued by the trailers for The Happytime Murders or the concept of an R-rated puppet comedy may find the movie entertaining enough through its one and a half hour runtime. Or, for fans of McCarthy's brand of humor, she brings plenty of the comedy that viewers would expect from her based on the films she's done in the last decade. However, The Happytime Murders offers little else, so anyone not already interested in seeing the movie is perfectly fine skipping this late-summer release. Jim Henson may have secured a lasting legacy in Hollywood, but The Happytime Murders seems destined to be a more forgettable release from The Jim Henson Company.
The Happytime Murders is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 91 minutes and is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material.
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- The Happytime Murders (2018) release date: Aug 24, 2018