What is it about puppets that makes them so appealing? A show like Sesame Street has been a staple of countless childhoods across its lengthy history. Then, you have The Muppet Show and the subsequent films based on them. Is it each character’s cutesy look and distinct personality that makes them stand out? Of course, you can’t forget about the comic situations that they find themselves in either. Whichever way you want to look at it, you seemingly can’t go wrong with puppets. Now, on the flip side of that, what makes Melissa McCarthy so unappealing? Is it her brash, loudmouth nature? Maybe it’s just that she’s simply not funny. These two polar opposites are what make The Happytime Murders a sometimes fun but sometimes heartless and annoying 90 minute noir romp.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Happytime Murders is a product of The Jim Henson Company. Though, it was released under the debuting Henson Alternative banner which will specialize in adult friendly films. The style of the puppets and their quirky interactions with human characters are reminiscent to something you’d see on the aforementioned children’s programming. Obviously, though, the usage of profanity and sexuality set it apart. The film was announced way back in 2008 but finally saw its release this past weekend. Even the late great Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, produced and directed the film. On top of everything, Sesame Workshop, the people behind Sesame Street, unsuccessfully sued STX Productions for using their name in the promotion for the film.
The Happytime Murders follows Phil Phillips, voiced and performed by Bill Barretta. Phil is the only puppet to have been a police officer for the LAPD but was fired after a tragedy on the job. Now a private investigator, Phil is hired by Sandra White (Dorien Davies) to discover who’s blackmailing her. Phil’s investigation leads him to a porn shop where he runs into Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), a former cast member of the popular puppet show, The Happytime Gang. A lone gunman enters the store and executes everyone with the exception of Phil who’s in the back room. Phil’s former human partner, detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) arrives on the scene. Despite their mutual distaste for each other, Phil and Connie reunite as partners to find the killer while the other members of The Happytime Gang are picked off one by one.
Let’s start this off by stating the obvious. The Happytime Murders is a dumb movie. Judging by any of the promotional material, would anyone expect it to be anything different? The overall story is a bit of a mess as the focus shifts here and there. Also, The Happytime Gang seemingly has little to do with the story even though their murders technically are the story. Regardless, it’s abundantly clear that the film was meant to have the same look and style of the other popular Henson creations. However, it’s meant to attract older audiences who like raunchy comedies. If nothing else, the film does succeed in that regard. It’s vulgar, crass, and unapologetic in its depiction of innocent looking characters in unsavory situations.
For that, the film deserves to be commended. It’s not often that you see a company who projects an image of being wholesome delve so far into the other end of the spectrum. The first act of the film is easily the best as it perfectly sets the tone. Despite all of Phil’s cursing, some very detailed sexual acts, and drug use, there’s something endearing about this world and these characters. For those who’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit (shame on you for those who haven’t), this is basically that film on crack. Whereas Roger Rabbit dabbled with adult themes, The Happytime Murders exploits them. From an octopus milking a cow, a ratty puppet offering sexual favors for sugar (the puppet drug of choice), to the obligatory sex scene, there are instances of these overt adult situations everywhere throughout the film.
If you’re into raunchy humor, most of these things are actually pretty funny. Again, the world of the film has an air of innocence that’s seemingly corrupted by a sick minded society. While people in 1988 would drool over the exceedingly sexualized femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit, in 2018, we’ve been desensitized. Excess has become the norm and The Happytime Murders offers it up in spades. In a way, this is 2018’s version of Sausage Party. The innocent and playful veneer masks the horrible atrocities below the surface. Obviously, this isn’t a film for those who are easily offended. There are countless moments where you find yourself wondering how something so shameless ever got made. Yet, this is all while you’re laughing at the absurdity of it.
Unfortunately, though, the film falls short of its full potential. While a film like Sausage Party was packed with nearly non-stop laughs, The Happytime Murders doesn’t follow through with its comedy. This is mostly because of one person: Melissa McCarthy. Ever since her Oscar nominated role in Paul Feig’s 2011 film, Bridesmaids, McCarthy has been one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses. The one problem with that is that she basically plays herself in every film she’s in. As soon as she shows up at the beginning of the second act, the quality nosedives. The jokes become more physical than situational or verbal. Typical Melissa McCarthy schtick takes hold. Anything special about the film is quickly wiped away and a run-of-the-mill rated R comedy is left in its place.
It may seem unfair to condemn a film because of one actress but there’s a noticeable shift the second McCarthy appears onscreen. The neo-noir Roger Rabbit-esque story takes a backseat to her terrible brand of comedy. For those who are fans of McCarthy, you may actually enjoy her here. Admittedly, she’s not unbearable but the film just changes direction with her inclusion. Supposedly, McCarthy herself even did minor rewrites to flesh out her character. Frankly, that’s what it feels like. What begins as a promising, yet demented, detective story quickly turns into something so painfully average and devoid of originality. While The Happytime Murders may not be as bad as some reviewers are making it out to be, it falls far from its ultimate potential. Even its horribly lovable puppet characters can’t save it from unfunny jokes, a messy, unresolved story, and, of course, Melissa McCarthy herself.