Even from the trailer you know the humor that’ll accompany director Brian Henson‘s The Happytime Murders. Henson is the son of Jim Henson, famed puppeteer who created the The Muppets Show and Sesame Street. The elder Henson not only specialized in programming for children, but also adults, such as on Saturday Night Live. The lineage present makes a film like The Happytime Murders all the more disappointing as it never rises above a crude gimmick.
The film is set like a noir, opening with a voice over from Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a former puppet cop who’s not a regretful washed-up drunken Private Investigator. Philips is approached by femme fatale, Sandra (Dorien Davies), a puppet being blackmailed for her sensual past. In his investigation he runs across his estranged partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). The two had a falling out after Philips missed his shot to kill another puppet in order to save her, resulting in him and puppets being banned from the police force, and her with a puppet liver. It sounds as bad as it is. Now, not only must they solve this femme fatale’s blackmailing troubles, but also the murders of the Happytime Gang, the defunct cast of a puppet television show.
The screenplay makes zero sense. Zero. Obvious investigative steps are missing, the approach of someone who’s openly sensual, afraid of being exposed as such is dross, and the reasoning behind Philips missing his shot is zilch. But mostly, the film lacks world building. If one wants to make references to puppets as second-class citizens, and some veiled jokes towards slavery, then there might need to be an exploration of said world.
A perfect comparison would Zootopia. There, animals in an animal world isn’t just a gimmick. The animals have real roles to play. Here, we don’t see any puppets with any careers or families. Instead, they’re continually the punch line. And that would be fine if the punchlines weren’t all crude and worthless. With each “cock” joke, reference to a sex shop, porn, and incest, one wonders if Henson wants to make a movie about puppets in a human world or a movie about sex.
The Happytime Murders would be a far more interesting adventure if we found out about these puppets’ lives, their history, and why they’re considered a lower caste. Ironically, the film claims that puppets aren’t treated as equals because they’re not seen as whole. The film in itself, through lack of character development, decidedly never treats them as whole characters.
The sentiment is continued through the puppeteering itself. It may be sacrilegious to question a Henson’s puppeteering, but the puppets don’t emote. Mostly because they’re just mouth and rough arm movements. The elder Henson focused on making his puppet’s movements as life-like as possible, continually progressing toward that end goal. The Happytime Murders backslides on that progress. It causes the humor to fall flat. In fact, not one joke lands with more than a half-hearted chuckle.
And while Melissa McCarthy does try to dredge this already sunken ship, it goes all for not because even she’s not committed to the bits. Instead, the delivery is strained. It’s no wonder that her best acting comes around humans, such as Bubbles (Maya Rudolph)—Philips’s secretary—Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker), and Agent Campbell (Joel McHale). But most of the time, McCarthy is reduced to lame gender jokes referring to her “manly” appearance.
The Happytime Murders makes its paltry 90 minute runtime seem like Lawrence of Arabia because it drags, because you know you’re looking at a hot steaming pile of garbage that even a puppet wouldn’t watch.