The early buzz for The Happytime Murders has been aggressively negative, with multiple critics calling it the worst film of the year, and one even going so far as to call it the worst movie of all time. The former is certainly a defensible position, given that it’s not a terribly good movie, but I do wonder just what was expected of the film. If you’ve seen the trailer you should know precisely what you’re getting. This is the EXACT movie as advertised. Like, exact. To expect a product any different than the one on the screen is a level of idiocy matched only by the content of this film. So if 90 minutes of exceptional puppetry in service of crass, very very very very very very very very stupid gags is your thing, you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did, which is to say, enough.
Brian Henson, son of the famous hippie puppeteer of yore, directed this film under the company name of “Henson Alternative,” which suggests that the most famous children’s puppet company of all time is looking for decidedly off-brand content upon which to apply their masterful craft. But given the reception of their inaugural outing, I can’t imagine that this brand will move forward without a bit of tweaking. That said, The Happytime Murders oozes ambition, and if you’re a fan of strong puppet work, the technique on display is undoubtedly worth your patronage. In fact, the best part of the movie is the blooper reel which shows a few trade secrets over the closing credits. I haven’t seen the two most recent Muppet films, so I don’t know if this is a new thing specifilly to Happytime, but the modern era has allowed for puppeteers to step out from behind the stage and into a bright green bodysuit which can be digitally removed from the frame. As a result, we’ve got puppets running, fighting, and screwing in ways that feel impossible… which might be a deal breaker for some.
What I mean is that it’s genuinely weird to watch puppets do adult things. I remember when The Simpsons first appeared on tv, my mother simply could not wrap her brain around the idea of a cartoon being made for adults. To her, cartoons were for kids and that’s it. It took years before she warmed up to the idea, and as a child who grew up in a world where cartoons were not exclusive to children, I never got what was so hard for her to grasp. Last night, however, as I watched puppets having sex, doing drugs, and dropping F-bombs left and right, I felt a little bit of that same disconnect. It wasn’t so black and white as my mother’s response to adult animation, but it definitely took me a few minutes to get where the film needed me to be. Seeing puppets employed for such things was, well, strange. Sure, Avenue Q sort of beat this film to the punch, but even that took a meta angle. And yes, I have seen Meet the Feebles – probably the Citizen Kane of this sort of thing – but those puppets were distinctly of their own design. The Happytime Murders, while not officially Muppets, are pretty much Muppets, and it feels weird.
And they ejaculate silly string.
Seriously, if that gag doesn’t tell you exactly what movie this is, you weren’t paying attention.
So here’s the gist. In this version of Los Angeles, puppets are second class citizens to humans. This is an under explored thematic device for sure, but all in all, this isn’t the movie you want grappling with social issues in any meaningful way. Humans don’t typically like puppets and vice versa. That’s all you need to know. Don’t get too caught up in the particulars. Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a Bogart-esque puppet private eye who finds himself caught up in a series of murders. You see, someone is targeting the cast of a long cancelled puppet show called The Happytime Gang, of which his brother Larry was a member. Phil has long since fallen into disgrace after a poor judgment call ended his police career and caused the government to enact the “Phillips Code” which prevents puppets from ever being cops. Even so, Phil’s connection to the case puts him back into action with his former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). The two aren’t on the best terms, so they frequently bicker the way that unwitting partners do in buddy cop movies, which this sort of is. It’s also sort of a noir mystery, but not really. No commitment to genre here, and I wonder if that’s a weakness or a strength. Why step on the toes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit if you don’t have as good of a script?
McCarthy acquits herself well, showing a rapport with her puppet counterparts that ranks amongst the best celebrity cameos on The Muppet Show, but as good as she is, it only serves to highlight how much better puppet gags work in short form. There’s a reason The Muppet Show works so well while the many Muppet movies are a mixed bag. There’s a reason why the Cantina scene in Star Wars pops but the Ewok movies don’t. Even so, it’s a blast to watch the enthusiastic puppeteering, and in that sense the envelope is being pushed. As much as I hem and haw over the entertainment value of the film, it’s clear that there is something here worth exploring. Maybe next time.
Rounding out the human cast we have Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker, and Maya Rudolph, whose ditzy-yet-capable Bubbles steals every scene she’s in.
So yeah, there are some laughs to be had here, groans too, but you already know if this is going to be your thing, and if it is, you’ll have a decent time. If it isn’t, you might want to wait until you can dip in and out of it at home. At the end of the day, I got to watch a porno where a puppet Dalmatian plays BDSM games with a restrained, very human fireman, and it’s now in my brain forever.
For my money, the worst movie of the year was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which didn’t feature nearly enough puppets.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.