Upon hearing about the film The Happytime Murders, I enthusiastically looked forward to the release on the silver screen! I grew up on Henson classics like The Muppet Show, Muppets Tonight and, of course, Sesame Street. The idea of a rated R, made-for-adults, raunchy puppet movie tickled my fancy like you wouldn’t believe. The premise had a lot of promise. The cast was one I couldn’t complain about. I had high expectations. Knowing Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson would also be directing provided that giddiness and hope it would not let me down. However, after viewing the film, I am disappointed to say it’s all stuffing, tangled yarn and worn down felt and not enough clever wit and original Henson humour.
The film plot introduces us to Phil Phillips, voiced by Bill Barretta. Once the first puppet to serve on the police force, he is now a washed-up private investigator working in assisting fellow puppets downtrodden by a human-run world. Encompassing a neo-noir tone, Phil narrates the story as we follow along in this racist, discriminating world where puppets are second-class citizens to humans. “It’s their world. We just live in it.” Philips tells us grimly. I actually dug this concept and thought it was a cute comparison to the horrifying discrimination and racism going on in our world. But this satire falls flat alongside the equally racist and discriminating jokes made throughout the film. Something I’ve only seen South Park properly execute… if we can call it that. This attempt at racial commentary that starts off the film is also quickly discarded and not really brought up again.
Phillips is hired by a femme fatale-looking puppet with bright red hair to look into some ransom letters she has been receiving. The plot thickens while on this case as Phillips witnesses several murders of cast members to a beloved children’s show The Happytime Gang. A show that had both human and puppets working together harmoniously and we also learn Phil Phillips has several personal ties to.
Instead of leaving us in stitches, the film unravels in an obvious, forced and almost boring way. Detective Connie Edwards played by Melissa McCarthy, who once partnered with Phillips adds some relief as she tries to out-puppet the puppets with her humour and quips but there is only so much delivery can do for bad writing. Philips and Edwards’s relationship displays a falling out that coincides with Philips removal from the Police force and is full of the usual cop tropes and cheap laughs as they work together to solve the case.
With an R rating, this film does have a lot of raunchy, sexual content, dark, violent scenes, profanity and drug use up the wazoo. It’s no Sesame Street in the slightest, but the rating feels wasted because the envelope, although pushed far just wasn’t pushed well enough. In the puppet world, sugar is like cocaine and snorted using pieces of liquorice. There is also a drawn out, silly string ejaculation, puppet sex scene that makes film Team America‘s memorable sex scene look like an innovative masterpiece. The film just has very little working for it. I will say I was shocked by the first major puppet murder in the film. The visual of stuffing and fluff exploding before my eyes did get an audible gasp out of me but it quickly wore off.
Not even the human cast of comedic veterans like Maya Rudolph who plays Philips secretary Bubbles, Elizabeth Banks who plays human Happytime Gang alum Jenny and Leslie David Baker and Joel McHale who are also on the police force as Lieutenant and FBI respectfully, could keep this movie afloat. For a script that was in pre-production for more than a decade, it just felt full of worn out gags, snags, and bemusement. The best part of the film can be found at the mid-end credits when we see the behind the scene filming using the puppets and green screen, and that’s giving it too much credit frankly. The overall lack of laughter in the theatre was so harrowing it would have made Elmo cry.
If you’re still curious about The Happytime Murders, wait until it comes out on Netflix. This is, unfortunately, a summer film flop. The excruciating 91 minutes has the odd comedic scene that produces a chuckle here and there but not enough to justify a film as one worth watching. The Muppet Show‘s Statler and Waldorf would gleefully rip this movie apart and declare Fozzy Bear a comedic genius in comparison.