The Happytime Murders Reviews
The best part of the film is the puppetry. Although the characters in question are a far cry from the likes of Big Bird or Kermit the Frog -- they swear constantly, snort drugs (read: rock candy with a Twizzler!), have sex, and in one disgustingly overlong scene ejaculate silly string over the room(!). But the puppeteers and the technical wizardry behind making these puppet characters as convincing and believable as they do cannot be faulted. This is top notch work. Particularly impressive are some wide shots where we see the puppets in full size walking across the street without having to look at them from the waist up. (As a bonus, there's an end credit sequence in which we see outtakes -- or rather, footage of how this stuff works.) The lead character, a disgraced police officer named Phil Phillips, puppeteered by Bill Barretta, goes through a relatable character arc to keep one invested in his plight.
The other assets are live actresses Melissa McCarty and Maya Rudolph. McCarty shares the top-billing as Phillips' ex-partner, Connie Edwards, and while your opinions about the actress may vary, she actually gives a great performance in this film. She treats the puppets as equals and is a lot of fun to watch. Ruldoph gives a more tender turn as Phillips' secretary, oddly named Bubbles. Although she doesn't have many scenes, she brings a lot of much needed heart to the picture.
The idea behind the picture is sound: a world where puppets are treated as second-class citizens (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with puppets instead of cartoons and you get the idea), and a murder mystery which involves puppets getting bumped off by a mysterious assassin. These murders, oddly enough, are actually among the most visually humorous moments in the film! Rather than spraying blood, we see stuffing pop out of these puppets as they are gunned down, decapitated, or mutilated -- you name it! It's oddly funny in a twisted way. And the plotline, although not especially original or groundbreaking, at least builds well to its climax, even if the final showoff is disappointingly short.
The primary problem with The Happytime Murders is that it spends much of its 90 minute running time indulging in a lot of tastelessly vulgar stuff. Although meant to provide humor, sights of seeing these characters doing the things mentioned earlier actually proves to be more off-putting than funny. An overlong sex scene involving Philips and another puppet, femme fatale Sandra, which culminates with a gross, extensive silly string gag, in particular, left me sick to my stomach and did take me out of the picture. The wonderful Broadway musical Avenue Q had a similar scene that was nowhere near this disgusting and arguably funnier.
Worse still, there's no major purpose to a lot of this shock value stuff. It feels as though Henson was trying to push as much comfort zone as possible, but I feel that bad taste for bad taste's sake does not a great movie make. I can't help but wonder if maybe the film would be better off toning down a lot of this over-the-top raunchiness, as it would at least make its storyline more tighter plotted. There are also some implied ideas that puppets are treated as second class citizens, but the script doesn't delve into them as deeply as it could have.
There are flashes of brilliance in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, and it isn't an altogether failure, but the inconsistent shift in tone and overemphasis on the shock value cause the picture to be a mixed bag. It is worth watching for the amazing puppetry and McCarthy and Ruldolph's performances, but as the show is quite profane and extreme, it's definitely not for kids.
In a world where puppets and humans live side-by-side, Private Investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is investigating a series of grisly murders targeting the stars of a popular children's sitcom. His ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), is forced to work with Phillips as the bodies and felt pile up. Together they trace the killer amid seedy drug dealers, prostitutes, strippers, and criminals, all of them puppets.
For a depressing majority of the running time, the jokes are simply puppets swearing or puppets being randy. Very rarely will there be more thought given to the gags and setups. This reminded me of Seth MacFarlane's Ted wherein too much of the comedy was centered on a teddy bear doing things we don't normally associate a teddy bear doing. A puppet simply dropping an F-bomb is not a joke, just as a random person dropping an F-bomb is not a joke without some degree of setup and/or context. A puppet smoking is not funny on its own. A puppet drinking is not funny on its own. This is lazy writing that falls back on its surface-level shock value to compensate for the paucity of actual comedy. Too many jokes fizzle on screen, drawing at best the occasional generous chuckle. While you're watching The Happytime Murders, you're quite conscious of the fact that it should be funnier. You can feel the desperation on screen and the disappointment. I kept thinking, "Why did they settle for that joke? Why aren't they doing more with the possibilities of their premise? Oh great, now it's a joke about balls." An R-rated puppet cop movie starring Melissa McCarthy should not be this uninspired.
Let's tackle one scene emblematic of the film's best assets and its shortcomings. Early in the first act, our puppet P.I. visits a puppet porn store/theater/film set. As soon as he enters, the curtain is pulled back and we see an octopus vigorously milking a cow's udders, milky geysers freely spraying everywhere amid giddy cries. It's a memorable visual with obvious sexual connotations and it's one of the better moments to convey some degree of thought as far as developing the world of puppets. But then the scene just keeps going without any new development or complication. And then it keeps going. And then you realize that the filmmakers tapped out with the visual and had nothing else. The sequence at the porn store/theater/film set keeps sliding in more debauchery, especially with clips from an array of fetish films, a notable example being a fireman whipped by a Dalmatian dominatrix. Then in short order it becomes a murder scene and the fluff flies everywhere. Once again it becomes readily apparent how poorly handled the development process was with this film. There are puppets fighting, puppets doing drugs, puppets even having sex, but are there comic scenarios here? Infrequently. Without better crafting, the shock value naturally loses its impact and then the film gives up. It's front loaded with the most memorable transgressions, and then it settles into a fairly mediocre cop movie that you have to remind yourself is a comedy because... puppets?
Instead, what the viewer gets is pretty much a standard cop movie with some film noir elements emphasized as reference. There is some half-hearted commentary about discrimination against puppets and how they're seen as second-class citizens (like Bright). This too is dropped after the first act and the movie settles into a second-rate potboiler. If you remove the presence of puppets, too many scenes don't even present humor. It's more a cop movie than it is a comedy, and that realization perplexed and disappointed me. The lazy, crude sexual humor is a crutch they return to, though with diminished returns, as another attempt to jolt the lagging movie to life. It's a tedious affair where the imagination feels capped. You'll likely be reminded, as I was constantly, of the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which tackled film noir tropes and cross-human integration. The difference is that Roger Rabbit thoroughly thought out its characters, plot, world, and satire, and I consider it to be one of the best-written films of all time. With The Happytime Murders, it has to resort to a Basic Instinct legs-crossing gag twice in 2018. This movie desperately needed a few more drafts from better skilled comedy writers to have more entertaining jokes than "puppet does non-puppet stuff."
McCarthy (Life of the Party) is drifting on autopilot, desperately looking for ways to make this enterprise funnier. Her improv intuition runs into conflict with the simple nature that puppeteering demands a lot of preparation, so there are less off-script riffs. This is your standard brash, profane, ball-busting McCarthy performance we've gotten to know but there's not a character here. Even in the realm of simplistic cop movie tropes, she's still never more than the irritable partner who develops a begrudging respect. There is one interesting aspect to her character that the film does so little with. In a flashback, we see that she was critically injured in the line of duty and had to have an emergency puppet liver donation. The only thing ever done with this is the allowance that McCarthy is now able to snort puppet drugs that would ordinarily kill humans. That is it. There's not even a joke related to this fact. It's another example of the film's deficiency of creativity.
The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie that has far too little imagination. The lewd vulgarity gets boring and becomes indicative of the lazy writing all around, the mere appearance of anything naughty meant to goose the audience into thinking they're watching something really transgressive and provocative. The novelty wears off pretty quickly. Maya Rudolph as a cheerful secretary and the behind-the-scenes end credits were the best parts. What they're really watching is a mediocre cop movie strung together with the flimsiest of genre tropes and a scant chuckle. Without better comedic writing and setups, you're stuck with the story, and that's not a good decision. This is a witless movie that doesn't deserve its premise and is a waste of everyone's time. At my preview screening, I could hear a child's voice behind me and thought, "Oh my, a parent actually brought their child to see this movie? Did they not know?" That child never should have been in that theater, and not because of the raunchy content, but because that child deserved a better movie experience from their parent, a figure of trust.
Nate's Grade: C-