“Do You Have the Latest Issue of Puppet Pussy Party?” – Phil Philips
Released in 2018, The Happytime Murders was a long-in-development project from the adult-geared alternative arm of the Jim Henson Company, the famed production company behind The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Dinosaurs and many other beloved, family-friendly projects. Yet, unlike those projects, The Happytime Murders squanders its imaginative premise on a witless and raunchy crime-comedy that blindly pushes buttons instead of attempting to tell an entertaining story, to the extent that even under the proficient direction of Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island), son of the late Jim Henson, the film never manages to escape its dreadfully lethargic humour or its foreseeable buddy-cop storyline.
Plot Summary: When the cast of a 1990s sitcom is murdered one by one at the hands of a mysterious figure, Phil Philips, once the Los Angeles Police Department’s first puppet police officer, now a weary private investigator, finds himself dragged into the case. But, as the investigation becomes more and more bewildering, Phil is forced to bury the hatchet with his former human partner, Detective Connie Edwards, in order to prevent more past-their-prime puppets from meeting a grisly end…
Curiously, before the film was released, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind the cherished children’s television series; Sesame Street, actually tried to sue The Happytime Murders‘ marketing team on account of one of the film’s taglines; “No Sesame. All Street.” Claiming the film tarnished their child-friendly reputation. However, the suit was ultimately rejected. In many ways, this amusing piece of behind-the-scenes drama is more interesting than the actual narrative of The Happytime Murders, which primarily serves as a witty yet predictable detective mystery where Phil and his partner, Connie, are driven to scour for clues across the sunlit, puppet-populated metropolis of Los Angeles, in the hope of exposing the unbeknownst serial killer. Through this investigation, the film makes many attempts at humour, 90% of which falls short as most of the comedy lazily stems from adorable puppets merely cursing or enjoying more adult activities, such as smoking, sex or drinking alcohol. On a more positive note, the film does, at least, feature a few fragments of absorbing world-building, most notably with how puppets are considered second-class citizens compared to humans, hence why so many puppets eventually become addicts, numbing themselves to the misery of their lives, a detail that is clearly intended as underlying (and underdeveloped) social commentary.
As mentioned previously, The Happytime Murders is, at its core, a parody of classic buddy-cop crime-thrillers, with the alcoholic, blue-felt gumshoe, Phil Philips, skillfully portrayed by Bill Barretta, reluctantly pairing up with his abrasive former partner, Detective Connie Edwards, clumsily portrayed by Melissa McCarthy, after his thespian brother gets inexplicably murdered by an individual intent on wiping out the entire cast of the Happytime Gang, a prevalent ’90s sitcom. All of whom were puppets, aside from the token human cast member, Jenny, portrayed by Elizabeth Banks. And thanks to the spectacular puppetry on display, you quickly forget that Phil, one-half of this investigative tandem, is a glorified hand in a sock. Alas, the characterisation isn’t nearly as impressive as beyond some basic character traits and chucklesome one-liners, both members of the central duo lack depth and frequently come across as obnoxious, especially McCarthy. Regrettably, this issue also extends to the under-utilised supporting cast of Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker and Joel McHale.
Akin to many other puppeteering projects, all of the elevated sets utilised during production were built so that the puppeteers could stand on the ground and operate the puppets as if they were standing with straight arms. Yet, even with this information in mind, every set that appears on-screen feels like a real, lived-in location. Unfortunately, the rest of the visuals aren’t as remarkable, as the cinematography by Mitchell Amundsen is immensely bland, over-relying on over-lit close-ups and mid-shots that barely enrich the satire or mystery of the narrative.
Relatively tedious and generic, the bass-heavy original score by Christopher Lennert tries to reflect the jazzy scores of ’70s crime-thrillers yet rarely succeeds in forming any truly memorable tracks of its own. Similarly, songs like Sexy and I Know It and Low Rider seem almost arbitrary in their placements within the runtime, usually throwing off the tone of whatever scenes where they are featured.
In regard to the puppets themselves, it’s intriguing to note that a grand total of one hundred and twenty-five puppets were used during the film’s production, with around forty of those puppets being created specifically for the film. As a result, every puppet that emerges from scene to scene is visually unique, retaining its own colour, fabric, style, and personality. Once again, it’s just a shame that the gags and dialogue that emit from each felt character’s mouth are so sluggish, continuously giving off the impression that the film is trying far too hard to be risqué.
In summary, The Happytime Murders is a crime-comedy harbouring far too many lousy jokes, with the genuinely clever gags being few and far between. As such, the only thing that can be declared for certain when it comes to The Happytime Murders is the fact that with its countless scenes of drug-snorting and depraved puppet sex (not to mention an extremely drawn-out ejaculation sequence), it’s worth emphasising that this puppet-led comedy is not one for youngsters. Still, it’s not as if they’re missing out on much. Rating: low 4/10.