Puppets, Fuzz, & Filth Fuel The Happytime Murders

by Ben Martin

Mah-na Mah-na Murders” might have been a catchier title for the newly-released The Happytime Murders. Granted, my proposed title’s a bit more esoteric and might’ve presented this picture with more legal trouble. In any event, The Happytime Murders presents an R-rated raunch fest for those of us who grew up loving puppets and Muppets alike. Throughout my life, I’ve played with the Muppet Babies. I’ve had Sesame Street presented to me by every letter of the alphabet, rocked with the Fraggles, and even enjoyed the latest and short-lived incarnation of The Muppets (2015-2016). Thus, I’m the perfect audience for the film in review.
This movie is based on an idea that’s bounced around The Jim Henson Workshop and production company for the past decade. A very adult-oriented comedy featuring puppets and their human counterparts called The Happytime Murders, which has finally seen the light of day. The film tells the story of a former cop and current P.I, puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). When cast-members of the popular 90s puppet TV show, The Happytime Gang start getting killed, Phil must re-team with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case. Now, the clock is against the fuzz as the puppet fluff flies.

The Happytime Murders is one of those flicks that is better in comedic concept than it is in execution. Don’t get me wrong, this film is funny. In fact, there were a couple of scenes in it that made me laugh so hard I almost cried. However, all the jokes are a variation on one thing. That being that humans and puppets co-exist; as such, puppets also indulge in sex, drugs, and occasionally violence. Thus, this concept results in a crude adult comedy which was most-definitely brought to you by the letter F, followed by three other ones. Thankfully, most of these one-note jokes work; but it does become repetitive at times, despite the picture’s scant 91-minute runtime. For that reason, I wish that this raunchy humor made more of an attempt to be original.
During every minute of said runtime, human and puppet cast-members interact beautifully with one another. There wasn’t a scene in which I didn’t believe this world exists. McCarthy was fine in her role, playing a loud and obnoxious, but likable enough, detective. As with every other film I see her in, I’m reminded that she can give two kinds of performances: the aforementioned loud and obnoxious or sweet and kind-hearted. Perhaps that’s why I found the rest of the cast to be more interesting than the movie’s heroine. Moreover, I thought the puppets in the film were more entertaining than the humans surrounding them. Despite only delivering a voice performance, I feel Bill Beretta provides a fleshed-out protagonist in Phil Phillips that steals the show.
While I was able to buy into the world that this movie presents, it does leave a lot to be desired. The Happytime Murders lays the foundation for a universe co-inhabited by characters with guts and characters with stuffing, and then stops world-building. The prime example being the beginning of the movie in which Phil explains that puppets are considered lesser than humans. We’re then shown instances of such mistreatment. Alas, that’s about as far as it goes. I know this is a crude comedy, but I also feel the movie could have been an allegory for racism or classicism. To no avail though, as sociopolitical comedy is not what this picture is concerned with. Instead, it focuses merely on bawdy jokes, not even bothering to cement the rules of its world.
There is one area in which this movie does not lack for anything, and that’s the puppet-craft. The Happytime Murders is an exceptionally well-made picture that features expert puppetry. At no point do we see the proverbial strings. The craft on display here isn’t surprising though as it’s helmed by Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson). Despite not having directed a movie since 1996’s Muppets Treasure Island, Brian Henson doesn’t miss a beat. He proves to be a master puppeteer and excellent director for this subgenre of film.

The puppetry on display here is enough for me to recommend the movie. Granted, you’ll have to be okay with puppets getting some filth on their fluff in order enjoy the flick. While I do feel the film had more potential, I also think it’s the best adult comedy featuring puppets yet. Then again, I don’t dig Team America: World Police (2004), nor have I seen Avenue Q. Nevertheless, as credits rolled, I found myself wondering, “Is Jim Henson rolling in his grave over The Happytime Murders or is it giving him a good laugh?” Personally, I think the late-great puppeteer is good-naturedly doing a little bit of both.


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