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Right up front, it’s important to note that the puppeteers that work at The Jim Henson Company (or its adult-focused offshoot, Henson Alternative) are magicians, full stop. The magic that they put on display, using minimal computer effects to bring to life numerous puppet characters, is astonishing. To use them in a riff on hard-boiled noir (one of my favorite types of film) is not only exciting, but ripe for humor. So when I realized that The Happytime Murders fell awkwardly on its execution, I couldn’t help but be disappointed.
Directed by Brian Henson, The Happytime Murders is a film that plays out one big joke, that puppets are naughty, to varying degrees of success. On average, however, the film elicits chuckles when it should be aiming for uproarious laughter. There’s only so many times a puppet can say a naughty word before it’s not really that funny anymore. Not only that, but the concept of a filmmaking medium typically aimed at kids being used to tell raunchy stories has been down before, with Meet the Feebles, Team America: World Police, and Sausage Party having laid the groundwork before this.
Much like your typical noir detective film, Happytime sees puppet private detective Phil Phillips (puppeteered by Rowlf Muppet performer Bill Barretta) embroiled in a murder mystery featuring the former cast of a once-popular television show, The Happytime Gang. Forced to team up with his estranged former partner, Phil finds himself setup for the crimes as the story rifles through various noir tropes such as femme fatales, voiceover narration, flashbacks, and secret identities.
One of the things that makes previous Muppet films fun is the eclectic mix of Hollywood celebrities they get to interact with their puppets, but make no mistake, this is not a Muppet branded film, Big Disney would never allow it. Happytime is no exception to that fun, though after its long road to development, some of the cast ultimately winds up feeling underutilized.
Melissa McCarthy has a certain brand of angry, agressive humor that doesn’t always jive with everyone, but seeing her badmouth puppets is particularly enjoyable. She gets some of the biggest laughs in the film just by getting into verbal or physical altercations with her felt-covered costars. Mya Rudolph, playing the loyal assistant, is also a lot of fun. Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks feel completely wasted in the film, hardly given anything funny to do other than blandly fill the archetypes of jerk federal agent and former stripper girlfriend, respectively. More confusingly, rising comedian Jimmy O. Yang shows up as a beat cop with no lines whatsoever, making him feel like a victim of the edit.
The puppeteering in the movie is astonishing, using new gags and tricks to portray a world where puppets are treated as second class citizens. Full body puppets running, dancing, and fighting are on display, as well as puppets driving cars in camera are some of the highlights. One extended fight scene featuring McCarthy and a cast of unruly criminals is one of the more impressive displays of puppetry I’ve seen on film. The skill and passion is there in the work, but it’s a shame that nothing else feels up to par.
Starting with the script from Todd Berger, The Happytime Murders falters in a variety of ways. Story points fail to connect, and there are gaping holes in logic that even cursing puppets couldn’t distract me from. When does an FBI agent have the authority to suspend a police officer, for example? The humor is also hit and miss, with some of the larger gags having already been shown in the trailers. There are some really wild, inventive visual gags that are not only raunchy, but also help flesh out the world of the film, such as puppet porn and it’s role in the depravity of certain characters. It’s a shame that the film instead relies mostly on puppets cursing and having freaky sex as it’s big funny moments, because it wears old.
The editing is choppy, leaving holes in the plot, and the cinematography Mitchell Amundsen feels flat, overlit, and out of place for a noir film. If Henson Alternative really wanted to tell a noir story with puppets, it could’ve done itself a favor by looking to mimic the style not only in story, but also on the screen.
One thing that The Happytime Murders has going for it are interesting concepts of a world in which puppets and humans coexist. Sure, this isn’t any different from any of the Muppet films, but it’s pushed a bit further here than in those kid friendly stories. The idea of puppets being treated with discrimination is interesting, although, much like it’s other concepts, it doesn’t go very deep. Phillips is a disgraced cop who was actually the first puppet police officer, having been fired for perceived favoritism towards a puppet criminal. Netflix’s Orc Crime film Bright did something similar, using fantastical tropes as an allegory for racial inequality. Much like Bright, however, Happytime just doesn’t go far enough.
Ideas such as sugar being a drug to puppets or puppet/human organ transplants offer unique, funny twists on addiction tropes scene in noir films, but the surface level attention paid to them makes it feel unsatisfying. Even the idea of a puppet having cosmetic surgery to seem more human is grazed upon, but then quickly forgotten. I’d be willing to see more of the Happytime universe, just so long as they were actively looking to flesh(or felt) out these ideas further.
All in all, The Happytime Murders is a mixed bag. While there are a fair share of good chuckles and even one or two laugh out loud moments, it just isn’t funny enough. Likewise, conceptually it is bursting with potential, but feels like it’s settling for just rattling off concepts instead of giving them any type of thoughtful explanation. Aside from Melissa McCarthy, its human cast isn’t given enough to do, and it fails to truly capture the noir elements that it’s aping. If you think vulgar puppets is funny, you’ll probably enjoy it just fine, but I found myself looking for something a little more clever.
The Final Pop
The Happytime Murders is a perfect example of a great concept mired by mixed execution. Great ideas and a talented cast are given nowhere to go and nothing to do. You’ll find your fair share of laughs, but will be wishing for a bit more.