By: Will Ashton (Four Beers) –
Raunchy puppets have almost assuredly been around since the advent of puppetry, whenever that might be. For as long as people have slipped their hands into the fold and made the handheld creations say something inappropriate for a quick laugh, there have been puppets who have dived into R-rated content. If you have ever held a puppet in your life, it’s not hard to have them say something adult. It’s easy to make them do something that shouldn’t be seen by little children. Puppets are as mature as the folks who hold them.
Which is why it’s weird (and borderline soul-sucking) that The Happytime Murders believes the concept of R-rated puppets is at all novel. At least, based on the way the new movie marketed itself, acting as though a filthy felt (would-be) muppet saying dirty words like “fuck,” “shit”, and “dick,” or our puppet protagonist shooting silly string as semen, is breaking new ground and sprinkling out a flowing oil stream. The truth of the matter is, we’ve seen raunchy puppets before. Several times, in fact. Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s perverse Meet the Feebles, Trey Parker’s button-pushing Team America: World Police, the Tony-winning Avenue Q, Comedy Central’s once-popular Crank Yankers, the notoriously unaired Kanye West pilot Alligator Boots, the fantastically satirical play Hand of God, or countless other pop culture examples, the idea of making puppets act crude and/or say or do lewd things isn’t original. It’s not creative or unique in any sense of the imagination. If anything, it’s stale. It’s hacky. It’s tired. Nevertheless, The Happytime Murders acts like those past productions don’t exist, and it makes a new movie that feels more dated and bland and recycled in the process. It’s as delusional as it is dumb.
The long-bred passion project of director Brian Henson, the son of the late, great Jim Henson, The Happytime Murders was a movie I was greatly looking forward to, once upon a time. Not when the marketing showed us our first glimpses at the footage, mind you. Rather, to be more specific, around 2008-2010, when I first heard about the idea and when I first saw the accompanying concept art, which promised a brooding, smoke-hazed, contemplatively made and designed noir with puppets. The most obvious comparison would be Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which is a masterpiece I consider both miraculous and near perfect, which took the logline for Chinatown and added a whole bunch of familiar (and not familiar) cartoons using groundbreaking, state-of-the-art special effects to realize its wild, high-energy world. That love, craftsmanship, and attention to detail are distinctly unfounded in the affection-less, haphazard and generally lazy movie from Brian Henson, but we’ll get into that discussion in just a quick moment.
The story (such as it is…) is centered around Detective Phil Phillips (veteran puppeteer Bill Barretta), a grizzled, washed-up private detective in a world coinhabited by humans and puppets. Treated as second class citizens, puppets are given a hard time. And it’s never an easy day in the rough-and-tough life of Detective Phillips, especially as he remains psychologically wounded by a traumatizing incident in his past that resulted in an innocent person dying and his position on the LAPD terminated. One day, he is given an assignment by Sandra (Dorien Davies), a salacious, secretive client who wants Phil to find out who has been blackmailing her. In the midst of trying to solve this case, there are a string of murders in the city of Los Angeles targeting the former cast members of The Happytime Gang, a once-beloved sitcom from the ’90s centered predominately around puppets. One by one, a puppet is left lifeless, often in violent, extreme, and over-the-top ways. That includes Larry Shenanigans, Phil’s brother, who is torn to shreds (literally) by a trio of dogs planted in his apartment. Driven by anger, contempt, and the desire to avenge his brother (which isn’t explored much), Phil wants to find out who is behind these targeted deaths. And he cannot solve this mystery alone. He’ll need the help of his former human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who shares resentment towards her ex-partner from their fractured past.
When you sit on a project for this long, you’re bounded to have some good ideas, right? While The Happytime Murders is starved for originality, it does contain a few inspired moments. Written by Todd Berger (the underrated bottle comedy It’s a Disaster), the jokes are consistent in the film’s padded (ha) and outstretched 91 minutes, and there are, at the very least, one or two gags that land. The misses far outweigh the hits, but when a joke is funny, it’s a well-earned chuckle. Whether it’s the demented character design for a pair of unfortunate inbred children, or simply the sight gag of watching a puppet get the stuffing knocked out of it (literally) via a bullet to the head, The Happytime Murders isn’t complete bereft of laughs. But anyone who expects to giggle more than a half dozen times (if that) will likely be sorely disappointed, and there’s a good chance that you won’t find anything in the film funny at all…
I would also be remiss if I didn’t commemorate the puppetry, which is professionally handled and clearly the work of talented professionals who are providing the best work they can in a film that doesn’t reward their dedication and hard work. It’s a shame, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I’m glad The Happytime Murders gamely employed them and kept them busy and active, at least. I also want to commend Bill Barretta’s lead performance, which is driven by emotional weight and clear-drawn integrity that’s not dissimilar to the brilliant work provided by the late, great Bob Hoskins in the aforementioned Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It is a bummer that The Happytime Murders isn’t worthy of his fine performance, but at least Barretta provides the best work he can.
For a movie that’s been a long-gestured passion project throughout the past decade (at least), The Happytime Murders is a weirdly shallow and unenthusiastic movie, filled with little wit, a muddled thesis, and a general indifference to do anything new or original. It’s hard to know what happened here. Perhaps the movie has been stewing in the pot for so long that by the time it was ready to be made, it was stripped down to such a basic, half-hearted script that was wounded from years of rewrites, revisions, and an endless supply of notes from meddling, prodding studio executives who always want to have their voice heard. Or maybe The Happytime Murders was once the gritty, grimy noir suggested by the concept art, and the idea of having bright, animated puppets contrast that tone was one that many people admired but few investors wanted to bite the bullet on. But then Ted, Deadpool, and Sausage Party came into the mainstream, and they proved there’s a market for movies that were raunchy in genres that are typically clean. And someone saw the potential to make The Happytime Murders if — and only if — they bumped up the “raunch.” And that’s when the movie truly became bastardized, resulting in a flimsy, unfocused garble that was only a shadow of what it was once before. Or perhaps, maybe, The Happytime Murders was always designed to fail, and its stalled release was simply delaying the inevitable.
It’s hard to know the truth, so I’m going to put down my conspiracy theorist hat and stick to what we know for sure, based on the film at hand. The Happytime Murders is a deflated, depressing mess of a movie. It doesn’t showcase the promise found in its early reports, and it certainly isn’t anywhere near the movies that inspired it — both in terms of quality and in terms of its execution. The jokes feel excessive dated. I would not be surprised if this script was typed up in 2005, because that’s what it feels like on the whole. If there was a time to make and release this movie the way it is presented here, focused on the shock comedy and only the comedy, then that ship sailed quite a while ago, and Brian Henson and Todd Berger missed the memo on that one. If the movie had more on its mind, though, and it just got lost in execution, that presents a whole series of problems. Let’s dive into those problems right now.
Much like Bright, Netflix’s first attempt at a blockbuster from December, The Happytime Murders is a commentary on racism, particularly within law enforcement. And a poor one at that. As mentioned earlier, puppets are treated as second class citizens and they’re often dismissively called “socks.” Henson and Berger hastily shove this metaphor into the fold, perhaps hoping that it will make the movie a little more credible beyond its R-rated puppet antics. But the director and writer rarely provide this theme with any gravitas. It offers little in the way of thoughtful commentary or meaningful discussion. In fact, it doesn’t provide anything insightful with its social critique. The Happytime Murders is certainly no Zootopia (which also had a pretty damn muddled thesis, but that’s another discussion …). The metaphor is mainly an awkward, underdeveloped, and uncomfortable inclusion that isn’t given the weight or sensitivity that it deserves. And in a movie like this one, it becomes more offensive than not — for reasons that are seemingly unintentional. But it’s honestly hard to know. If The Happytime Murders wants to have any sort of deep conversation about racism, it needs to be smarter about its approach. As it stands, it serves to make the lackluster R-rated comedy even less progressive than it already is.
The Happytime Murders is bad as a comedy, but it’s even worse at being a film noir. Comedy is subjective. If something makes you laugh, it makes you laugh. If it doesn’t make you laugh, then it doesn’t make you laugh. There’s only so much you can do in terms of critical analysis when it comes to breaking down what makes someone giggle at one thing or another, even though many have tried. So whether The Happytime Murders works at a comedy is something the viewer will decide for themselves, even though many critics and filmgoers alike have announced their protestations about the ill-received Brian Henson movie — the first one the filmmaker has made since the ’90s (and man, does it show…).
However, you can assess a movie based on its merits as a film noir. And I can say confidently that The Happytime Murders is a flat-out terrible noir. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great movie for a variety of different reasons. But one of the main reasons why it shines so bright is because it works splendidly as a genre film. If you took out the animated characters and focused on the humans, you would still have a very good (if standard) noir film. It’s well-filmed. It’s well-directed. It’s very well-written. It’s extremely well acted. And it appropriately very cinematic in its visual presentation. The Happytime Murders, meanwhile, is extremely, overbearing overlit. Everything is flat and unappealing to the naked eye, with the type of dull camera staging that you would expect from a bland NBC pilot. Nothing about the look of the film is the least bit special.
The world-building is equally dire. There’s little care in how the world of The Happytime Murders is inhabited, surprisingly. The city of L.A. found in Brian Henson’s film is fairly similar to the ones you’ve likely seen in countless other movies, and the only difference is that you’ll see a puppet or two walking around in the background. For a project on the back-burner for so long, it’s downright odd that the movie isn’t more considerate about the world in which these characters preside. And to make matters worse, the story here is just bad. The villain is predictable. The plot is threadbare, with obvious clues and even more lame cliches that weirdly aren’t even satirized. There are a lot of things wrong with The Happytime Murders, and that was to be expected. But there’s very little right about it to make up for it.
The Happytime Murders is a disappointment. Plain and simple. I’m critical because there’s so much potential here, so much that could’ve broken against the tiresome summer mold, to produce a fun, offbeat late-summer comedy that leaves us in stitches. But that is certainly not the case. Anything that might’ve made this movie fun or interesting is dead on the scene, and the mystery of how it died is one we’re going to be dissecting and inspecting for a long, long time. Hopefully, that inquiry is solved one day.
The Happytime Murders (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a puppet says a naughty curse word like “fuck” or “shit” or “dick.”
Take a Drink: every time The Happytime Murders tries to discuss racism and fails.
Take a Drink: anytime the puppets do or say anything remotely sexual.
Take a Shot: after that extended silly string-filled sex sequence.
Take a Drink: every time you see a prominent comedic actor waste their time and talents.
Take a Drink: anytime you find yourself misty-eyed thinking about what this movie could’ve been. Oh, what it could’ve been…
Do a Shot: if you give up on the movie and decide to call it a night. (Or, conversely, if you make it all the way to the end.)