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In the mid-1970s, the pilot episode for what would become the truly wonderful The Muppet Show was entitled “Sex and Violence.” It’s hard to imagine characters like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear associated with such inherently mature things in life, but then, that was part of the charm. The Muppets of the 1970s were somewhat spikier and edgier than the softened versions of Kermit and friends that we might associate with Disney. Yet now, over 40 years later, we have The Happytime Murders, a new movie with plenty of sex, violence and puppets that feels like it’s walking on very well-worn ground.
Since the “Sex and Violence” episode of The Muppet Show, there have been a number of other examples of puppets and nonhuman characters behaving badly, or at least behaving in non-childish ways. There’s the cult Peter Jackson film Meet the Feebles, which, like The Happytime Murders, involves a series of puppets who had once been stars of a TV show. There’s the massively popular Broadway musical Avenue Q, which has ribald wit and sex scenes sprinkled in with wryly funny songs. And then there’s the Trey Parker/Matt Stone satire Team America: World Police, in which marionettes get freaky with each other while also saving the world.
And unfortunately for The Happytime Murders, those other films and shows weigh heavy on the experience of watching the new film. None of them is perfect, but so much of the new film, directed by Brian Henson and written by Todd Berger, feels like it’s simply a dull carbon copy of what came before. While the Muppets themselves may not have ever gotten quite so violent or sex-obsessed as they are in The Happytime Murders, the level of edginess seems to be basically as high as a preteen boy learning naughty words and sex acts and thinking it’s the discovery of the age. The film’s concept is as detailed as the humor gets here, which is especially painful considering that The Happytime Murders was in development for nearly a decade. The notion that this movie took 10 years to come together is jaw-dropping.
Whatever flaws Avenue Q or Team America may have, there’s a sense that the creators of each were not content to simply say, “What if the puppets in this story didn’t act like kids?” That’s the baseline of the concept; an intelligent story can be wild and gross and crazy, but doesn’t stay happy with just asking the question. The Happytime Murders is pleased to just be gross for the sake of being gross. It’s no funnier to watch the lead puppet character, a hard-boiled private eye in Los Angeles, ejaculate stream after stream of Silly String than it is to type out the sentence. In theory, maybe that joke could be funny. In execution, it’s just an endless visual gag hampered by the very clear sense that there’s a puppeteer just off camera spraying Silly String all around a set.
Something else that separates The Happytime Murders from those other examples is its predominant use of human characters. The intent to blend human and puppet characters isn’t nearly as prevalent in titles like Avenue Q or Team America; the constant presence of human characters in The Happytime Murders simply emphasizes how utterly ridiculous the story feels, and not in a good way. The humans in the film are played by exceptionally talented actors — Melissa McCarthy specifically is very comfortable interacting with the puppets — but it’s somewhat hard to get invested in the story when it feels like humans are fighting the spotlight with the puppets. (It does not help matters that The Happytime Murders makes the inexplicable and massively tone-deaf choice to equate the puppets in the film with people of color, struggling for equality against a cruel, largely white oppressor.)
Of course it’s possible for a film in 2018 to posit puppet characters as edgy and dark. When Avenue Q opened on Broadway, it was unquestionably aping the style of Sesame Street, but it wasn’t the first piece of pop culture to turn childish tropes on their ear. When Team America: World Police opened in 2004, it may have been unique in its depiction of marionettes (especially when they’re mid-coitus), but it wasn’t the first time a daring choice with puppets of a kind had been made either. The Happytime Murders could have felt fresh and unique and distinctive; all the ingredients for a wonderfully snappy, biting film existed, but the filmmakers never dove deep into their concept, content to stay just on the surface.
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