In the last ten years we’ve had some genre films, exploitation flicks and B-Movies of incredible quality from the most unlikely sources. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 packed a far greater emotional punch than a film starring a talking racoon had any right to, The Shape of Water turned the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a credible romantic lead and The Lego Movie was a masterclass in metatextual narrative that used its premise to deconstruct Lego’s own decades-old business model. Finally, The Happytime Murders drags a bunch of Sesame Street rejects into a serial killer neo-noir.
It’s a premise as wacky as the ones mentioned above with all the potential in the world to create a heartfelt, cinematic masterpiece made by people with a love of the craft and a passion for the medium. It stars some of Hollywood’s top comedic talent and boasts a subtext that turns puppets into a vice-ridden underclass, mimicking the way mainstream entertainment has treated them since the rise of CGI. Lastly, it’s all breathed into life by Brian Henson, son of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson. Unfortunately, The Happytime Murders is nothing like the aforementioned films.
Puppet Phil Phillips used to be a cop for the LAPD and the first piece of felt to ever become one of the fuzz. He was also the last as he messed up so bad he got a law named after him to keep any puppet from ever being able to earn a badge again. He now plies his trade as a private investigator working a case that will find him neck deep in a plot to kill all the members of The Happytime Gang, the cast of the first show aimed specifically at a puppet audience. The LAPD’s representative on the case is Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), Phil’s former partner whose testimony got him kicked off the force. Reluctantly, they chase their leads together in the sun-swept boulevards of LA’s rich and famous, and the slums and gutters of LA’s down and outs.
One of the major problems with The Happytime Murders is that for a film sold on the depravity of watching symbols of your childhood get fixes and fucking, it’s that if anything, the film doesn’t go far enough. The concept of the sexy puppet movie is actually well-worn territory. The most famous example is Team America: World Police, but there’s also Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles, forgotten cult hit Crank Yankers, and the massively underrated Fur TV. Even kid’s shows got in on the act with Australia’s The Ferals. Each of these, in their own way, were either more shocking than Happytime or beat it to the punch.
There’s a gag minutes into the film involving an octopus and a cow making a porno in the back of an adult DVD store. It’s a surprising, shocking, and surreal sucker punch; and it is exhausting waiting and praying for the rest of the film to come up with material that matches it for hilarity. After that, the film feels like it’s run out of ideas already, and is relying solely on gratuitousness as the one comedy trick it has left; but once the shock faces, gratuitousness just becomes padding.
Ironically, padding is something the film shares with half its cast. In between the big protracted scenes with sex, drugs and some surprisingly well-choreographed fights, the film struggles to make its dialogue entertaining, its plot intriguing and its characters worth caring about. You can see almost all of the human cast who came along for this crazy ride desperately trying to remember why the hell they brought their tickets in the first place.
Phil revisits his relationship with a member of The Happytime Gang only for them to be bumped off before our feelings about their relationship have had time to ferment. This formula is recycled three times in the course of ninety minutes, each with diminishing returns on an already unsatisfying arc. Then there are all the technical gaffs. The camera can’t get a hold of the focus of the scene, the stage direction can’t figure out how to frame puppets and humans together in the same shot, and the editing fails to keep a consistent pace appropriate to the mood of each scene.
I was predetermined to like this film. I love noir, I love mysteries and, especially, I love the Muppets. I grew up watching them and consider many of their films to be childhood favourites, chief among them being Brian Henson’s own Muppet Christmas Carol. A seminal festive movie that transcends the season and one of the greatest family films of all time, regardless of what religion you might be. I was more than ready to laugh at that flipped on its head and turned into a sleazy sex comedy. But the way in which this film just limps towards every standard of cinematic acceptability drains all the energy out of the laughs. It never stops seeming like a Saturday Night Live sketch that went way over time and way over budget. I bent over backwards trying to like this film and all I ended up with was a broken back.
Dir: Brian Henson
Scr: Todd Berger
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Bill Barretta
Prd: Brian Henson, Ben Falcone, Jeffrey Hayes, Melissa McCarthy
DOP: Mitchell Amundsen
Runtime: 91 mins
The Happytime Murders is out in cinemas now.