“Sex. Murder. Puppets.” The Happytime Murders delivers on the promise of its poster—if precious little else. Judging from the outtakes reel, this one-note comedy must have been a blast to shoot; divorced from a barely-coherent plot, the prurient puppetry is an absurd and amusing achievement. But in the context of a bland noir narrative, its novelty is limited. After 90 minutes, you’ll be more than ready to stuff a sock in it.
Written by Todd Berger, the bawdy script has been wafting around Hollywood for a decade. Various talent has been attached over the years, spanning three generations of ‘in’ comic actresses: first Cameron Diaz, later Katherine Heigl, and finally Melissa McCarthy assumed the role of Detective Connie Edwards. She joins a decidedly comic cast—including Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, and Joel McHale—which undermines the intended juxtaposition between cartoon characters and a grim, gritty world. The premise would have been better served by the supporting cast of The Sopranos.
This is a world in which puppets walk among us as second-class citizens, forced to sing on street corners for quarters and support their addictions with more demeaning services still. Against this backdrop, the washed-up cast of hit sitcom “The Happytime Gang” are on the eve of a big syndication payday when, one by one, they start to succumb to dramatic and suspicious deaths. On the case are McCarthy’s Edwards and puppet P.I., Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). Intoning the character with shades of self-deprecation and world-weariness befitting a down-and-out ex-cop, Barretta—himself a 20-plus-year veteran performer and puppeteer with the Jim Henson Company—is one of the film’s few genuine highlights.
An earnest attempt at hard-boiled detective fiction set in this world has real comedic potential, but the humor in The Happytime Murders is too boring and boorish to elicit many laughs. The mystery too is broken, and becomes increasingly unglued as it expands—until its already elastic logic snaps entirely. This is a failing first and foremost of the screenplay, but also of director Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island), who fails to generate agency or atmosphere to get the concept off the ground.
I can’t recommend The Happytime Murders, but I can suggest some alternatives. Comparisons to Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are inevitable—and unflattering; Rabbit plays smartly off noir convention and boasts a greater command of character and tone. Consider seeking out the early Peter Jackson effort Meet the Feebles if you’ve got the stomach for some truly transgressive puppet comedy. Feebles centers around a Muppets-esque troupe of variety show stars, but is infinitely darker, sleazier, and more memorable than the slickly produced film that arrives in theaters this weekend.
Having spent years languishing in development hell, The Happytime Murders feels at once outdated and undercooked. Its outrageousness may occasionally prompt a sideways smile or light chuckle, but the humor demonstrates a distinctive lack of imagination. If there’s a saving grace, it’s the magic of the Jim Henson Company (here branded as Henson Alternative, or HA!). There’s real, tangible talent on display from the countless creature designers and puppeteers whose work shines even when the storytelling doesn’t. Here’s hoping for a future production worthy of their talents, and our time.