Filmmaker Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, is out to prove that puppets aren't just for kids with his latest R-rated release, The Happytime Murders. But once the shock of seeing felt characters drop f-bombs wears off, the film has little else going for it.
Set in a version of Los Angeles where puppets exist and are treated as second-class citizens, The Happytime Murders follows private detective Phil Phillips (voiced by Yardley-born and -raised Bill Barretta) as he investigates a series of puppet murders around town. The victims are former cast members of The Happytime Gang, an old sitcom in which humans and puppet actors worked together during a period of racial harmony. So Phillips teams up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to find the killer.
It's a goofy take on a film noir detective story, similar to Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cool World, but with puppets in place of cartoons, and half the charm as either film. The main joke is ordinarily cuddly characters doing things they shouldn't, which at least Henson appears to find amusing. The first offering from the adult-oriented Henson Alternative studio, The Happytime Murders marks the first mainstream appearance of the filmmaker's so-called "Miskreant" race of Muppets, and he puts them to (dirty) work immediately with drug use, foul language, sex, and plenty of fluff-filled violence.
Sometimes, it works — like in the shocking, Silly String-filled sex scene between Phillips and his femme fatale client, Sandra (Dorien Davies), or the first time an adorable puppet uses foul language, or when Twizzlers are used in place of straws for the puppets to snort their version of cocaine. But as the film wears on, it becomes clear that raunch is the reason The Happytime Murders exists, and that kind of lack of nuance is not enough to carry the film successfully through its 90-minute run time.
Puppets behaving badly, after all, is a well-established comedic device by now, thanks to Meet the Feebles, Team America: World Police, and Avenue Q. Here, Henson seems mostly interested in sending the message that the Muppets can be dirty, too — and man, can they, but only about 20 years too late for it push any boundaries. The Happytime Murders is a good idea executed badly, or at least one that is trying too hard to be shocking.
Comedy aside, the film is interesting at least on a technical level, thanks to scenes that show full-bodied puppets seamlessly running and moving around the film's world. The Happytime Murders hints that puppets could be used for more than crude humor. But after the first 15 minutes, it becomes clear that we won't be getting that here.
Even if Henson didn't create a puppeteer's Touch of Evil with the Happytime Murders, the film can be enjoyable at points. On the human side of things, stars McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks provide ample comedic talent, and are well balanced with the flick's plush characters.
The problem, however, is that while the movie goes too far with its unsavory elements, it doesn't go far enough with everything else. There's a racial allegory set up — à la Netflix's Will Smith vehicle Bright — but they back off of that conceit almost immediately. As a result, the whole thing feels jumbled and unfocused, with what could have been strong story elements overshadowed mostly by whatever bodily fluids puppets might have available to splatter across a room. If the point is to prove that puppets are more versatile than just being used in morning kids' programming, The Happytime Murders at best provides an incomplete and profane answer.
But after decades of helming children's puppet movies like The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island for Henson, maybe as much is to be expected. After all, you've got to let off a little frustration somehow. Just don't show the kids.