Happytime Murders, The (United States/China, 2018)

August 23, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Happytime Murders, The Poster

“These aren’t the Muppets,” director Brian Henson might remind us, but his smile and wink would hint at what he really thinks. The son of Muppets creator Jim Henson and the man who filled his dad’s shoes directing The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppets Treasure Island, Henson has decided to cross over to the dark side with his “alternative Muppets” farce, The Happytime Murders. Careful to avoid copyright issues (and to avoid giving kids nightmares), Henson doesn’t give us a faux Kermit or Miss Piggy. However, although all the puppets in The Happytime Murders are new, they are obviously Muppets, regardless of how vociferously the filmmakers may deny it. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more.

Despite being one of the shortest theatrical releases of the year, clocking in at about 75 minutes (not counting end credits), The Happytime Murders feels overlong. That’s probably because the plot is nonsensical and pointless. This is all about the concept of oversexed, hard-swearing Muppets interacting with humans in an alternative universe version of L.A. The film’s “high concept” catches the attention, but it’s like the first time we heard Betty White drop the f-bomb. There was a certain shock value, it was worth a laugh, but where do you go from there? It’s the same thing with nasty Muppets. The transgressive element is edgy and at times amusing, but it wears thin quickly and once it has worn out, we’re left with warmed-over Dashiell Hammett, complete with the Sam Spade-inspired voiceover.

Recognizing that there has to be something more than Muppets cursing, flashing their crotches in imitation of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and doing un-family friendly things, Henson sets up the puppet culture as a thinly-veiled allegory. The social commentary about puppet discrimination and marginalization isn’t subtle but it gives The Happytime Murders a claim to being more than a raunchy look at what happens on Sesame Street when the cameras are turned off.

The Happytime Murders reunites two former partners, (human) LAPD detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and (puppet) PI Phil Phillips (voice of Bill Barretta), when an investigation into a series of puppet murders involves them both. For Connie, it’s her job. For Phil, it’s personal – his brother is the second victim. All of the dead “socks” were stars of a once-popular TV show, The Happytime Gang (the first program with a mostly-puppet cast to achieve “crossover” popularity – a nod to The Cosby Show). Additional deaths indicate an inside job and, once the finger of suspicion points to Phil, it’s up to Connie to solve the crime and clear her ex-partner. Aiding her in this endeavor is Phil’s secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), who has a crush on her boss.

The film’s puppet/human dynamics are strange. All the energy and color resides with the puppets. In an odd reversal of what one might expect, they are more animate than their human counterparts. Melissa McCarthy, for example, has the life of a piece of background furniture – a surprise since, even in her worst films, she’s normally able to dominate the screen. Fading into the background isn’t her style but that’s what happens here. The situation is only a little better with Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks (whose role, as The Happytime Gang’s only human, is small). Leslie David Baker (as Connie’s lieutenant) and Joel McHale (as a racist FBI agent) gain attention by being as cartoonish as possible.

The noir mystery element never works. Fortunately, it’s treated as a framework and the filmmakers aren’t overly invested in attempting to mine deeply into the territory. The Happytime Murders is intended primarily as a comedy and, while there’s a cheeky freshness in the early scenes, it eventually becomes tiresome and a little off-putting. This would seem like the perfect playground for McCarthy, so it’s strange that she seems so out of place.

The obvious antecedent to The Happytime Murders is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  The differences, however, go beyond the derivative nature of the former. While Roger Rabbit felt like a fully-formed story worth telling, The Happytime Murders too often comes across as a skit that runs for too long. Everything about the movie is stunted – from the running time to the production values to the story. Although it might work perfectly well on television (there are enough bawdy laughs to ensure an acceptable level of entertainment), it never gels on the big screen. This is unquestionably a better bet for home viewing than a trip to a theater.

Happytime Murders, The (United States/China, 2018)

Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale
Home Release Date: 2018-12-04
Screenplay: Todd Berger
Cinematography: Mitchell Amundsen
Music: Christopher Lennertz
U.S. Distributor: STX Entertainment
Run Time: 1:21
U.S. Release Date: 2018-08-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence, Drugs, Puppet )
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1