The Happytime Murders sets out to asks a very simple question; what do puppets do when children aren’t watching? More specifically, how do a certain group of puppets deal with life after fame. Brian Henson, the son of famous Muppets creator Jim Henson, tackles these questions with very little subtlety and no wit to be found in his latest film. After a promising opening, the shock value and humor in puppets being dirty wears off almost immediately. What’s left when you leave the theater is the longing for a movie that could have been.
In modern Los Angeles, Phil Phillips is a former cop, who is also a puppet. His former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) suddenly comes back into his life after his brother Larry is killed. Larry was one of the cast members of a children’s puppet show in the vein of Sesame Street called The Happytime Gang. Phil and Connie, who have a very contentious relationship, must work together to solve Larry’s murder, and the rest of the casts’ as well. The storyline here is somewhat interesting, that isn’t the problem. Henson, who has directed Muppet films in the past like Muppet Treasure Island, uses the framing device of a noir story told through the eyes of a puppet. It’s a unique and fun way to tell a story like this.Henson establishes some really interesting stakes when Phil describes the publics treatment of puppets as essentially second class citizens in the beginning of the movie. We see a street performing puppet get his eye ripped by some kids. It’s a wonderful scene in the film as we see Phil tell his fellow puppet he doesn’t have to dance for the humans anymore. He knows this, but likes doing it. The line is delivered so well by the voice actor that you truly feel his plight. Unfortunately that’s where we leave it. Henson moves the story forward while never addressing the inequalities again. Instead, the obvious prejudice humans have towards puppets is used as a running joke that is never funny.
Frequently throughout the movie, puppets are referred to as “socks”, an apparent attempt at coming up with a derogatory term for the sake of a laugh that falls very flat. The subtext at play doesn’t work within the structure of the film. The Muppets always have tackled tough issues. Sesame Street itself has always been a champion for inclusion and diversity. If Henson was trying to make a comment about racism and inclusion, he surely missed the mark with this movie.
Nothing in The Happytime Murders is unique, fresh or inventive. Once the gag of puppets doing dirty things is established, it never goes further. Often it almost feels like he doesn’t go far enough with it. Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger choose to progress into various scenes that just become a way to introduce another puppet doing “shocking” things. The entire angle of the film becomes lazy and cumbersome after the gags keep repeating themselves. It doesn’t lend itself to compelling comedy.
The film offers so few laughs, it feels like an eternity. There are a few chuckle worthy moments, but the lack of truly gut busting laughs are sorely missed here. Some of the running gags are clever, but executed in a way that brings things down. Instead of cocaine, the puppets snort Sugar, which also leads to their term for a crackhead being a “sugar smack.” Interestingly, or perhaps not interesting at all, McCarthy’s character becomes (or already was?) addicted to Sugar. This is poorly explained by a throw away piece of dialogue that explains that she has a puppet liver. Furthermore, this paves the way for Joel McHale’s character to make a mixed raced joke later in the film.
What can I say? Some critics are calling this the worst film of the year. I think that’s a little harsh. Think of The Happytime Murders as a colossal disappointment and an unfortunate squandering of potential. The trailer for this film picked up a lot of hype. Now that the film is out, the trailer becomes a greatest hits tape. If you want to see a puppet ejaculate an entire can of silly string, you don’t have to fork over your hard earned cash to do it.