The best part of The Happytime Murders are its credits – and that’s never a good thing. These final minutes are a blooper reel that showcases exactly how complicated it was to make some of the film’s simple gags look simple. Who thought it would be such an intricate process for puppets to have sex? But then again, who would ever think about puppets having sex?
After watching The Happytime Murders, it seems like these thoughts are far more common and far more intriguing to some folks than I ever would have imagined. Technically, director Brian Henson and his team are without fault. In their world, puppets and humans convincingly walk the same streets, but by the time purple puppet anatomy becomes the key to solving the big mystery, I was beyond repulsion. This mystery is brought to you by the letter P, and it’s made very clear by the end of the film what that P stands for.
The story takes place in a noir-drenched Los Angeles, where “felties” and “meat bags” live together in a grim and lasting state of dispute. Humans look down on puppets as second-class citizens, appreciated for their song and dance entertainment value, but little to nothing else. Just like the toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, these puppets have hardly any relevance or significance in the big world, leading them into the sort of drugged-up, sex-filled puppet poverty Henson displays on full blast.
In near Phillip Marlowe fashion, the film kicks off with private eye puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) accepting the case of a femme fatale (Dorien Davies) caught in a blackmail scheme. Phil used to be a cop, the first and last puppet cop actually, a sour honor which looms over him throughout the film. However, all of that’s quickly put on the backburner once someone starts killing off the cast of “The Happytime Gang,” an old kid’s comedy show. Two of the stars include Phil’s brother, Larry, and Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the only human actress and Phil’s once lover.
In my mind, this was a setup for another Roger Rabbit with a bit of role reversal thrown in the mix. But Happytime Murders hardly contains the significant motifs of the Zemeckis classic. There was even potential for a Bojack Horseman-like look at the washed up celebrity lifestyle with all of the “Happytime Gang” cast members – Larry, for example, has his blue skin bleached and a human nose stitched onto his face. Any attempt at a social proclamation is quickly drowned out though by the buddy cop feel the film mistakenly focuses on revolving around Phil and Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), his former L.A.P.D. partner.
Though I’m not an avid fan, McCarthy’s proven her comedic chops to work alongside all sorts of company. You can now add puppets to that list. She and the other human actors here – primarily Banks, Maya Rudolph as Phil’s dedicated and ditsy secretary, and Leslie David Baker as Edward’s lieutenant – work well with their fluffy costars. The way they react to the puppet crime scenes, with plush and fabric thrown all about, is particularly funny. But it’s McCarthy, who also executive produced, who best secures the illusion, making every interaction with the puppets believable and entertaining.
The appeal behind The Happytime Murders rests in ridding parts from our childhoods of its innocent glamor. Henson, one of the sons of Jim Henson, the Muppet auteur, seems like the perfect candidate to deliver on that experience. He does so in too many ways – I now know more and have seen more about puppets than I ever wanted to – and all of it’s tasteless humor. Frankly, it’s heartbreaking to see the Henson name tossed about a project that’s so heartless and so gruesome that the only thing I imagine sticking from it is Phil’s “Silly String.”
The Happytime Murders deals exclusively in smut and is infuriating to watch if only because Brian Henson seems to have no problem with that.