As the director of two of my favourite films growing up, and one of the best Christmas movies of all time, I have a lot of time for Brian Henson. He’s definitely not fallen far from the Henson tree, and has done a lot to keep Jim’s legacy in strong health.
What a shame then, that he is now responsible for The Happytime Murders.
This latest human/puppet outing deviates from your expected Henson experience however, and rather than orient the story towards a family audience they’ve gone full-on adult. Yes, The Happytime Murders has decided to do away with the scalpel-like writing of the numerous Muppet outings and instead opt for the double-headed axe of swear words and shock value. It’s certainly not an original premise to have puppets in compromising situations – Team America: World Police and Meet the Feebles have treaded much of the same ground before and better. Hell, even Who Framed Roger Rabbit has done this stuff before, but for The Jim Henson Company and its new subdivision Henson Alternative, this is new territory.
When it’s not trying to score shock points, The Happytime Murders attempts to take the mismatched buddy cop genre to a new level with a human cop (played with an embarrassed grimace by Melissa McCarthy), and Phil Phillips, a puppet private detective. Cue lots of potty-mouthed back and forth between the two, while they try to solve the murder of several fuzzy members of a kids’ tv show cast and ultimately clear Phillips’ name of past transgressions and the threat of implication in the present day serial killings.
The case takes our leads through the underbelly of the human/puppet society, and of course you can expect every vice under the sun prefaced with “puppet”. Apparently this was meant to be hee-larious, but in fact loses its novelty in the opening credits. After that it’s just a lot of meandering until the movie’s climax, where there was clearly meant to be a twist but everyone either worked it out or lost interest before the end of the first act.
The Happytime Murders doesn’t seem to know which kind of film it wants to be. The film starts with a noir-esque voiceover by our puppet protagonist, which fades to nothing after the first 20 minutes. There’s also the slightest hint of a metaphor for racism that is completely ignored for more vulgar humour. Even then, the writing is so poor that I can’t in fact remember a single joke – there may not even be one in the entire movie. Every line falls flat and apart from the puppeteer bloopers at the end credits, nobody seems to be enjoying their time on set at all.
As mentioned before, McCarthy seems to be genuinely ashamed of the material she’s working with. Everyone else looks like they’re desperately trying to salvage something here, with Maya Rudolph probably getting the least thankless role as Phillips’ secretary Bubbles. Elizabeth Banks literally disappears at the end despite looking like she was set to be the lynchpin of the whole story.
The only real saving grace here is that, despite the shoddy writing and uncommitted performances, the puppets are quite nicely designed. It would have been easy to find a workshop that could have made some cheap pieces, but here there’s no sign of any compromise. The Happytime Murders may be an unwelcome blemish on everyone else’s CV, but at least there’s some small comfort in knowing that a group of craftspeople were paid to ply their ever shrinking trade in a sea of CGI special effects.
Ultimately, The Happytime Murders is a comedy without laughs, and a detective story without a twist. In fact, the only thing remotely amusing and within the realms of law enforcement was earlier this year when the producers of Sesame Street tried to sue the makers of this movie off the back of the tagline “No Sesame, All Street”. When a news story about four words on a poster is more entertaining than an entire film, it’s hard to say that Henson Alternative will be back with another production any time soon.
After seeing this dreck, I hardly doubt they’ll be missed.