The Happytime Murders: All Stuffing, No Substance
This doesn’t need to exist. The Happytime Murders doesn’t need to exist, “Henson Alternative” doesn’t need to exist, and this whole gimmick of taking traditionally family-friendly entertainment and trying to make it adult, transgressive, and raunchy doesn’t need to exist. But it does and that’s incredibly depressing.
Not quite as depressing though as the fact that The Happytime Murders, a puppet comedy crime movie ostensibly for adults (though really quite juvenile) is directed by Brian Henson, director of the charming Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, chairman of the Henson Company, and the son of Jim Henson himself. Having the Henson name attached to this at all is embarrassing, not just because of how antithetical it is in content to his life’s work, but because for all its novelty it’s really just an empty husk of movie.
It’s about a former cop turned P.I. called Phil Phillips (Bill Baretta), a puppet in a world shared with humans. When the puppet cast-members of a famous television show called “The Happytime Gang” begin getting murdered, he’s brought back to the force as a consultant, teamed with his begrudging former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Attempting to put aside their differences, they try to catch the killer as they investigate in the depths of the L.A. underground.
In case you haven’t guessed, the plot of this movie is just about a direct rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; down to the murder mystery, the pairing of the human with the “other”, the film noir aesthetic and Sam Spade inspired P.I., and the racism allegory complete with allusions to segregation and original slurs. But Roger Rabbit was a lot more intelligent in concept and design, subtle but striking in its message, and concerned with details. The Happytime Murders just sees its plot as an excuse for puppets to swear, do drugs, have sex, and get killed in flagrantly exorbitant ways. Beyond this there’s only tired, recycled characterization, and clumsy, ineffectual prejudice metaphors.
The movie is very unfunny. From a fundamentally lazy recurring “say what” joke to a really dated Basic Instinct reference, the comedy of The Happytime Murders would have been uninspired and lame thirty years ago, let alone today. Though not relying on it as much as the trailer seemed to indicate, there is a fair degree of blue humour which almost never works in comedy, and is just awkward and uncomfortable. It’s very clearly following in the footsteps of Sausage Party, trying to get as much attention off its gimmick as that movie did, but where Sausage Party at least had interesting commentary undercutting its shock humour, The Happytime Murders has nothing of value to offer. And like with Sausage Party, the filmmakers don’t seem to realize that this is hardly the first time this idea’s been done. Peter Jackson thought of it way back in 1989 with Meet the Feebles and Avenue Q ran for six years on Broadway.
Bill Baretta, who’s voiced and puppeteer-ed many Muppet characters including Rowlf the Dog, Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth, and of course Pepe the Big Prawn, doesn’t imbue Philips with much of an interesting character at all, and just seems to be relishing the freedom the characters’ vulgarity gives him. Melissa McCarthy is once again putting the bare minimum effort into her typical schtick, not even being that good of a foil. And the film makes a futile attempt to create some genuine drama between them which is ridiculous -even the chemistry in Bright was written better. The cast is dotted with talented people much too good for this project, like Maya Rudolph (who has an unfortunate habit of frequently appearing in movies like this), Joel McHale, and especially Elizabeth Banks whose appearance here is not only completely superfluous given the direction of her character, but rather saddening.
In a year of movies like Fifty Shades Freed, Show Dogs, and Death of a Nation, there are far more despicable films that have been released than The Happytime Murders. Indeed, there really isn’t anything hateable or terribly insulting about this movie, save that effort and money was put into it that ought to have gone to something of merit. But that it can’t even garner an emotional response either way is monumentally disappointing in and of itself. This movie has no worth, it doesn’t say anything of any significance, it merely exists because it can. Brian Henson needs to do some soul searching and quit this endeavour to create adult-oriented content under the Henson brand while he’s behind. Because given how vacant and soulless The Happytime Murders is, what chance does another movie in the same vein have?