'The Happytime Murders': Film Review

Puppets behaving badly.
8/24/2018

Melissa McCarthy stars in this raunchy, puppet-filled comedy directed by Brian Henson.

Silly String will never seem the same again after Brian Henson's raunchy puppet-filled comedy The Happytime Murders, marking a distinct departure from his father's work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. The beloved toy is a key component of the most instantly memorable scene, depicting a riotously strenuous copulation between two very randy puppets. If you laughed at the brief snippet of the profane sequence shown in the film's trailer, you're likely to have a very good time.

The central conceit of the pic is that humans and puppets co-exist in the world, with the latter very much relegated to second-class citizen status. A seedy Los Angeles provides the setting for the film noir-inspired plot influenced by serial-killer thrillers and buddy-cop comedies, concerning a series of murders whose victims are the former castmembers of The Happytime Gang, a beloved puppet television show.

Investigating the case are Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a puppet ex-detective who became a private investigator after accidentally killing a puppet civilian in the line of duty, and current L.A. detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), his former partner. The two share a connection that goes beyond their professional history; after Connie was shot during the incident that destroyed Phil's career, she underwent emergency surgery in which she received a puppet liver to replace her damaged one. As a result, she has a serious sugar addiction that forces to her swig maple syrup by the glassful.

The movie hews closely to tropes of its inspirations, from its tough-talking, narrating gumshoe to its femme fatale (Dorien Davies), with whom Phil enjoys his office-set dalliance that results in some serious clean-up duties for his loyal secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). The other stock characters include the requisitely stern police lieutenant (the wonderfully deadpan Leslie David Baker of The Office) and the inevitably hostile federal agent (Joel McHale) who tries to exert his authority.

As the puppet body count rises, including a gruesome slaying in an adult bookstore in which the cotton flies, Phil reunites with his former flame Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the only human castmember of The Happytime Gang, who still apparently carries a torch for him. But as anyone who's seen a vintage film noir knows, relationships are often not quite what they seem.   

The first offering of The Jim Henson Company's new division, the adult-oriented Henson Alternative, this very much R-rated pic seems determined to push the envelope that has already been opened by such similarly raunchy puppet-movie predecessors as Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles and Trey Parker's Team America: World Police. While this effort doesn't reach those films' comic heights, it's more than funny enough, packing lots of genuine, if frequently tasteless, laughs into its relatively brief running time (about 80 minutes before the lengthy credits kick in). Todd Berger's script features some very clever smutty dialogue as well as numerous puppet-oriented sight gags perfectly orchestrated by director Henson, whose decades of experience in the field is manifestly evident. Much like the classic Muppet movies, you find yourself immediately immersed in the distinctive world in which puppets and humans interact with seeming effortlessness; at least, until you watch the behind-the-scenes segments during the end credits revealing the elaborate physical and digital trickery involved.

As always, McCarthy is a delight, elevating the uneven material with consistent comic brilliance marked by broad physicality; the scene in which her character snorts "grade A sucrose," enough to kill an ordinary human, is a hoot. She also displays striking chemistry with her puppet co-star, expertly voiced and manipulated by Barretta. The more than 125 puppet characters, all created especially for the film, feature many striking creations, albeit not ones likely to show up on toy-store shelves. But the movie is practically stolen by a human performer, Rudolph, who infuses Bubbles with as much sweetness as hilarity.

The Happytime Murders is hardly sophisticated comic entertainment. It's coarse, crude and vulgar and threatens to wear out its welcome despite its brevity. But if you don't find it uproariously funny at times, you must be made of cloth.  

Production companies: Black Bear Pictures, Henson Alternative, Huayi Brothers Media, On the Day Productions, STX Entertainment, The Jim Henson Company
Distributor: STXfilms
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Joel McHale, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Brian Henson
Screenwriter: Todd Berger
Producers: Brian Henson, Jeff Hayes, Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone
Executive producers: Lisa Henson, John Hyde, Dee Austin Robertson, Donald Tang, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zonglei, Felice Bee, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Director of photography: Mitchell Amundsen
Production designer: Chris Spellman
Editor: Brian Olds
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin

Rated R, 91 minutes