DIRTY ROTTEN PUPPETS
The Happytime Murders played out exactly how I thought it would. That’s not a good thing.
Brian Henson directs the film for a wing of The Henson Company called Henson Alternative. It’s clear early on that their goal is to proudly shed the family aura that follows Muppets around and get filthy. This is partly established in a quick scene that also sets up the alternate world of the movie where humans and puppets co-exist on Earth: A puppet is hailing a cab, but when the cab arrives, a human briskly pushes him aside and steals the cab. As the cab drives away, the puppet drops an f-bomb on it. We get from this that people look down on puppets and in some cases they can be second class citizens (both a good racial allegory setup and the only time I’ll compare this movie to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the scene isn’t exactly clever about this establishing moment. The puppet says “f— you” and we move on. Unfortunately, this desire to shock with some of the filthiest jokes and scenes you’ll see in a movie this year wins out over being clever for much of the movie.
The story concerns detective Phil Phillips, a puppet private investigator asked to look into a blackmail note received by one of his clients. This leads him to a sex shop where the first of many murders take place that tie into a puppet TV show called “The Happytime Gang”. Phillips is an ex-cop and he gets re-teamed with his former partner, Det. Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy, to get to the bottom of the killings.
McCarthy owes me one after Life of the Party, the early summer comedy that leaned HEAVILY on McCarthy’s ability to make people laugh to where there were few jokes actually written in the script. That’s too much to ask of your star. In The Happytime Murders, there’s a lot more going on to where McCarthy comes off better than in her last few outings, but it’s a shame she hasn’t hit the heights of the likes of Spy or St. Vincent in a few years.
The puppeteers and voices come off better. There is either great voice work (especially by Bill Baretta as Phil) or impressive staging of elaborate puppet scenes (you want to see an octopus voraciously and sexually milking a cow? You got it!).
But it’s all in service of a script with too many jokes that fall flat, relying on shock over wit. There are some great gags like one puppet who’s gone Hollywood and is bleaching his body to get the blue out or one puppet who drowns and the coroners wring his body out like a towel. The story isn’t awful. The antagonist’s goal gets a little murky at the end, but the way the clues intertwine is an interesting base storyline to litter with funny stuff, but Brian Henson and company deliver it as if watching a puppet do something vulgar is enough. Their punch line is too often a swear word. I wanted more.
Henson started this up-ending-what-we-know-of-Muppets take on his father’s iconic brand in a live show called Puppet Up!. This show, which had a national run and still plays in L.A., is two-fold entertainment. Puppeteers grab puppets and improvise scenes for adult audiences based on their suggestions. More entertaining is that the improvisers are also performing the puppetry above their heads and it’s broadcast on screens on either side of the stage, so you get an improv comedy show and a look at how Muppet TV shows are shot.
It was clear at Puppet Up! that the puppeteers were brilliant! The improvisation was….OK. They often picked the most shocking choice and got an initial laugh for such an out-of-place comment or action coming from an adorable puppet. But it was difficult to sustain. Ninety-one minutes of The Happytime Murders is equally tough to maintain, as if the screenwriter didn’t take the time to refine the comedy between an initial improv session and taking it to script. Which is exactly how I thought it would play out.
Directed by: Brian Henson
Release Date: August 24, 2018
Run Time: 91 Minutes
Distributor: STX Entertainment