Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Brian Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks
Running time: 91 minutes
When the puppet cast of a 90’s TV show The Happytime Gang start to be picked off by an unknown assailant, it’s up to disgraced puppet cop-turned-private-investigator Phil Philips (Barretta) and former human partner Detective Edwards (McCarthy) to catch the killer and redeem his tattered reputation.
Horny puppets saying bad things are hardly a novelty. You need look no further than Peter Jackson’s 1989 crass satire on all things Kermit the Frog, Meet the Feebles, and more recently Team America: Word Police and even Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s Broadway sensation Avenue Q to get your fix of foul-mouthed marionettes and puppets stuffing one another – if you’re into that kinda thing, of course.
The Happytime Murders – the latest from director Brian Henson (son of the legendary Jim) – piggybacks on the success of such works by delivering a film based solely on the assumption that having puppets say and do adult things is funny. And that’s where The Happytime Murders falls into a tangled mess of inferiority. Puppets doing and saying naughty things can be funny, but only when it makes up part of something greater. Team America worked because it had something interesting and poignant to say about the world outside one where puppets shag and curse. The Happytime Murders, on the other hand, offers no such substance.
Instead, it runs with a rather unimaginative LA noir-style storyline, where the bright lights of Hollywood and dreams of stardom are replaced by disgraced former cops battling past demons and new threats as they skulk from decaying back alleys to smoky strip joints in a dark city underbelly of sherbet cocaine and femme – uh, felt – fatales. It’s a tale we know very well; and, in this case, one we’ll very quickly forget.
Its one potential saving grace comes in the form of a neatly crafted alternate Los Angeles – à la Roger Rabbit – where humans and puppets co-exist, but where the latter are in a constant battle to shake their second-class citizen status – “you don’t have to sing and dance for the man no more” our puppet protagonist defiantly states early on. In a week that also saw the release of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman – the true story of the first African American in the Colorado police dept. fighting racism from both inside his place of work and in the organisation he infiltrates – pertinent allegorical parallels are quickly drawn up to our world today; however, any strand of poignancy rapidly gets the stuffing knocked out of it once Henson and writer Todd Berger get a taste for detonating, drowning, and dismembering their stringed stars.
From there, the threadbare plot takes a backseat as the film staggers lazily between predictable puppet penis jokes, exploding puppet heads with all manner of fluffy carnage, and overly-long sex scenes (you’ll never look at silly string the same way again). It wants to be enjoyably crass; it wants to shock. Sadly, The Happytime Murders is neither enjoyable nor shocking. Instead, it’s a premature ejaculation of disappointment – one you’ll want to cut ties with pretty quickly.
Many, many puppets were harmed in the making of this movie. Now our eyes and ears feel the pain too.