In 1988, Walt Disney Productions released the classic film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie about a world where humans and cartoons coexist. A year later, Peter Jackson gave us an R rated puppet movie called Meet the Feebles, a film full of puppet sex and violence. Now, thirty years later, Brian Henson, son of legendary Muppet creator Jim Henson, has directed and produced an R rated movie about a world where humans and puppets coexist, but he brought absolutely nothing new to the table. Not one ounce of originality, nor even a gram of fun.
At no point in this film does a character state “Puppet Lives Matter,” and that seems to be the only element of restraint director Brian Henson offered in this crass and tepid adult puppet tale about a world where puppets are considered second class citizens, hassled by the cops and ignored by cab drivers. If Henson had wanted to make some kind of social commentary, switching out African Americans for puppets, he and screenwriter Todd Berger should have worked a little harder on the script, instead of basically ripping off Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Now, in this movie, the Eddie Valiant character is a puppet by the name of Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), an ex-cop turned private investigator, who teams up with his old partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to find out who is murdering the cast of the puppet sitcom “The Happytime Gang.” The movie even goes so far as to have Phil framed for the murders just in case the obvious comparison to Who Framed Roger Rabbit wasn’t blatant enough.
The biggest problem with The Happytime Murders isn’t in its complete lack of originality, which on its own could be forgiven if the writer had tried to at least take a different spin on the premise, but for the fact that the whole production is just so unpleasant — and I don’t mean unpleasant because of there being puppets ejaculating silly string all over the place, or the gratuitous dropping of the “F” bomb at every opportunity; the film is unpleasant to watch because Melissa McCarthy is so insanely unfunny in this film. What the screenwriter may call “verbal banter” is just McCarthy endlessly spewing out insults that would be more fitting to a public school playground than something you’d expect to see in a professionally written script, and almost every moment on screen with her character is a chore to get through.
Note: The blame for this may not all fall solely on the head of writer Todd Berger, as this is a particular shtick of McCarthy’s, which has gotten very old and needs to be retired.
If this adult puppet movie was intended to help Brian Henson step out from behind his father’s shadow — his previous film being the very entertaining Muppet Treasure Island — he has made a very tactical mistake here; nothing in The Happytime Murders stands out as being particular clever or ingenious, and as mentioned above, the plot and premise bare too many similarities to other movies for it to stand out on its own. Now, making an R-rated puppet is not an intrinsically bad idea, Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles is bloody brilliant, but since then we’ve had television shows like Puppets Who Kill and Greg the Bunny, so you have to do more than just have a fluffy character swear and flip somebody the finger if you want to stand out.
• Phil lost his badge because he failed to shoot a fellow puppet — him being a fellow puppet being the apparent reason — but when we get a flashback of the events, it’s quite clear that it was a tricky shot, and he did shoot; he just missed.
• When the FBI wants to question Phil about his whereabouts during the killings, he immediately goes on the run despite there not being any evidence they could hold against him.
• Special Agent Campbell (Joel McHale) suspends Detective Edwards for aiding the fugitive puppets, but Agent Campbell is with the FBI and would have no authority to suspend a Los Angeles detective.
• Edwards repeatedly uses the joke “An asshole says what” against Campbell as if this bit of sophomoric humour is the Holy Grail of insults. Watching these traded barbs makes me sad.
• The puppet porn, one dealing with a bound fireman and dominatrix Dalmatian, offered the only rare moments of actual comedy.
There is literally nothing in The Happytime Murders ninety minute run-time that would make this film worth recommending: the puppeteering, though executed wonderfully, is in the service of a lame and tired script, and Melissa McCarthy is simply trotting out her old bag of comedy shticks that are as lazy as they are unfunny. Even out of sheer morbid curiosity, this film is not worth checking out; you’re better off tracking down the Peter Jackson puppet movie instead.
The Happytime Murders (2018)
With this film Brian Henson lobbed a stinky pile of felt into theaters in the presumed attempt at “shocking” the world with an adult puppet movie – sadly he was about three decades too late for this to work – and the resulting mess is as unfunny as it is unoriginal.