The debut feature from Henson Alternative, a new division of the Jim Henson Company specializing in adult content, The Happytime Murders was sold to viewers on the promise of a hard-nosed police buddy comedy that pulled no punches when it came to the raunchy and ribald nature of its humor. We even had Hollywood storybook moments in the lead-up to the film, as it languished in Development Hell for a decade with several A-list stars slated for the lead role over that time. There was even a mild controversy as the producers were sued by the Sesame Workshop because of the slogan, “No Sesame, All Street.” Everything was lined up for this to be the comedy smash of the summer.
Let’s just say it came up short, no offense to the Muppets themselves.
Directed by Jim Henson’s son, Brian, The Happytime Murders has a noir-esque plot involving a private detective being framed for the murder of famous puppets. If you find yourself screaming, “Isn’t that just Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with puppets instead of cartoons?” well congratulations, you’ve earned a cookie. The plot structure is indeed highly derivative of the 1988 classic, and also borrows elements of several other properties, including South Park, Crank Yankers, and even the awful Netflix dud, Bright, in that it depicts an alternate Los Angeles that has fictional characters as second class citizens.
Still, there were enough good elements at the ready to make this a really good movie. It’s just that they didn’t go full force. If you’re going to borrow from other sources (or claim “inspiration” for legal purposes), then add something to the proceedings to make it your own.
The all-star cast is led by Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards. As always, she’s game for the physical comedy, and throughout the first half of the film there’s a running gag about puppets mistaking her for a man. It’s a cruel joke, but what’s even crueler is abandoning it halfway through. When you’ve got the talent, put them to work. As bad as a “non-model woman looks like a man” joke is, if you keep recalling and building on it, it’ll still get plenty of laughs.
Anyway, our lead is a grizzled private investigator named Phil Philips (veteran Muppeteer Bill Barretta). I admit to losing interest in him quickly because he’s named after quite possibly the lamest American Idol winner. He used to be the first and only puppet in the LAPD, and was partners with Edwards, until an unfortunate incident got him labeled as a rat and a protector of his own kind at humanity’s expense (another Bright plot point ripped off). He narrates the film’s proceedings as a felt-lined version of Sam Spade, right down to his anachronistic office and doting secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph).
Philips is hired by a new puppet client, the nymphomaniacal Sandra White (Dorien Davies), who is being blackmailed. As Phil follows the first lead, he ends up at a porn store for puppets, where he runs into an old friend, a rabbit named Mr. Bumblypants, who was on a 90s TV show called The Happytime Gang, which also starred Phil’s brother Larry. While Phil checks on some evidence, a masked assailant enters the store and kills everyone else inside. Eventually, the entire cast of The Happytime Gang finds themselves in a killer’s crosshairs, and Phil is increasingly seen as a suspect.
The rest of the human cast is rounded out by some committed comedy talent. Elizabeth Banks plays Jenny, Phil’s former lover and another cast member of The Happytime Gang, now working as a stripper. Leslie David Baker has some great moments as the police lieutenant who forces Philips and Edwards to work together again on the case, infiltrating the seedy puppet underworld of sugar smuggling – for happy critters like puppets, sugar is essentially cocaine. Finally, Joel McHale gets some mileage out of FBI Agent Campbell, though I fear he’s starting to get typecast as an arrogant prick.
There are some genuinely funny bits, but again, we’ve seen them all before. If you saw the Red Band trailer, you’re already familiar with the gusher of silly string that is puppet cum after Phil and Sandra have sex in his office. The problem is, I’ve already seen puppets orgasm, in films like Team America, and the “Sock Puppet Porn” sketches that used to run on Comedy Central.
Again, if this film was to really succeed, it had to push the envelope way further than it did. Apart from the shock value of seeing a puppet octopus milk a puppet cow for a fetish show, there’s not much beyond the expected. There’s a Basic Instinct reference that’s funny, if obvious, and a deliciously dark moment at one of the murder scenes as a wet puppet corpse is treated before it’s removed, but that’s about it.
I found myself laughing at a lot of the individual gags, but I was still left wanting, wondering when the film would elevate the quality and quantity of the jokes, or at least go for something truly unexpected. There are plot points that make little sense, and most of the humor – which again, I did laugh more often than not – was more perfunctory than inspired. It was more, “Oh, haha, I get that one,” type of laughter, as opposed to, “Holy shit that’s hilarious!” For the the movie to truly break new ground, it needed a lot more of the latter laughs than the former. The film is at its best when it explores human/puppet relations, typically through the lens of the Philips/Edwards partnership. But like much of the humor and plotting, it just doesn’t really care enough to put the needed effort in.
I sincerely hope that Henson Alternative has more up its sleeve, because even though this film was a bit of a disappointment, it showed potential, and honestly I’d like to see what else this new class of Muppets can do.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your most/least favorite Muppet? If you could have a puppet organ, what would it be? Let me know!