It’s hard not to wonder what Jim Henson would’ve thought of all this. The late, beloved Muppet creator’s son, Brian, is the director behind the newest movie to turn puppets into R-rated humor devices: The Happytime Murders. Is this Jim Henson’s legacy? Like Avenue Q, Ted, and Wondershowzen before it, Happytime employs Muppet knockoffs doing adult things but, unlike those other properties, forgets to be funny. It’s a gimmick unbefitting of the Henson name.
The fact is Brian Henson and everyone involved in the production of The Happytime Murders knew what they were doing. They knew they were taking a shortcut to comedy in hopes of a big box office return and they didn’t care. Happytime is a cash grab in the worst possible sense. The humor is ripped off from dozens of sources and repurposed to appeal to the least common denominator. The writing is lazy and uninspired. Look to a comedy like Team America: World Police if you want to see how this type of thing is done right.
Like Bright last year with its convoluted mix of humans, orcs, and fairies all living in one world, The Happytime Murders presents us with a universe where humans and puppets coexist. However, also as in Bright, the separate species don’t get along. The puppet community does have one champion however, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), an LAPD detective who broke through on the force years ago and has seen better days when the movie picks up. He’s now a private eye, doing his own thing.
Phil soon discovers the puppet members of the once-popular Happytime Gang TV show are being offed one at a time. When his brother turns up as the latest victim, Phil rejoins the cops and is paired with his former partner, Connie (Melissa McCarthy). She’s got her puppet prejudices so the two make natural combatants as they run the gamut of cop buddy cliches in the name of serving and protecting. That includes everyone in the movie, of course, but mostly Phil’s ex, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks).
The murder genre is, at least, a good choice for the puppet jokes. Investigating a lurid mystery allows Phil and Connie to run into femme fatales, porn stars, and masked assailants. So there’s plenty of context for the swearing, sex, and more sex. The problem is all the stuff you want to see is included in the trailer, as well as the film’s first act. Everything that comes after is a let down.
“Stuff you want to see” is also generous and assumes you have some interest in this material. Most of the adult public will undoubtedly shrug their shoulders at this one. However, for younger audiences, Happytime will likely become a cult favorite. It’s the type of dirty schlock teen boys flock to, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. They’ll find out later the jokes they love from this movie have all been done 20 times before and better.
The most hilarious thing about The Happytime Murders is how it tries (like Bright) to teach us something about racism. It’s not even self-aware enough to avoid embarrassing itself. At 91-minutes long, it feels overextended after about 20.
The Happytime Murders is the first film from Henson Alternative, a new branch of the Jim Henson Company aimed at adults. If it’s any indication of the creative team’s future vision, they may want to consider quitting now. Happytime does nothing to elevate Jim Henson’s original vision of puppetry other than to make them do adult things usually reserved for PornHub. We’ve seen that before. Brian Henson likely knows better than anyone what his father would’ve approved of so maybe this is the best he can do. We’ll hold out hope for more next time.
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