The Happytime Murders (2018)
No Sesame. All Street.
Well, we knew this one was plush before it even hit the screen, right?
The Happytime Murders has been in development for a long, long time. It was announced 10 years ago and went through numerous cast iterations and reconfigurations before finally limping into release in its current mangled form. We’d have been better off if the concept had stayed buried.
No, scratch that; there’s nothing inherently wrong with an Adults Only riff on Muppet-style puppets, and indeed The Happytime Murders kind of has the familial seal of approval — it’s directed by Brian ‘son of Jim’ Henson, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), after all. Looking back, there are a few adjacent examples of this sort of thing — consider Peter Jackson’s early gross-out comedy Meet the Feebles (1989), the smash hit stage show Avenue Q, or, if you’re a comics nerd, the Sex Puppets in Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. There’s something to the notion of ostensibly kid-friendly characters fighting and f*cking — it’s an area we keep returning to.
Happytime keels over for two main reasons. Firstly, it fails to do anything narratively interesting with the premise, instead cleaving to a noir-pastiche murder mystery that was already on shaky ground back when Robert Zemeckis did it in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), pitting puppet Private Investigator Phil Philips (longtime Muppets puppeteer Bill Barretta) and his former LAPD partner, human cop Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), against a serial killer who is targeting the former cast members of a ’90s children’s television show The Happytime Gang.
Secondly, instead of using that hoary but, let’s face it, serviceable skeleton on which to build a decent comedy, the movie just goes for the gross-out every time. Every. Damn. Time.
That’s not an issue for any puritanical reason, mind you — after decades up to my armpits in exploitation cinema, I am nigh-unshockable. It’s just that The Happytime Murders pushes the boundaries in such boring, rote, and predictable ways that any element of transgression is lost because the whole thing is done so clumsily. Joke structure, timing, tension, rising action — all are fired out the window like a silly string cumshot (something you will see if you ever pony up for this thing), because it’s easier to show puppets f*cking, sucking, and doing drugs (glittery purple sugar is their heroin here) than do anything that actually requires a modicum of thought.
The human cast — including Elizabeth Banks, Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), Joel McHale, Community (2009-2015), and Maya Rudolph, Bridesmaids (2011) — are all much, much better than this, and what’s heartbreaking is that they clearly know it. You can see it in their eyes as they try and gurn their way through the script, written by Todd Berger, It’s a Disaster (2012), and Dee Austin Robertson — McCarthy, in particular, is tap-dancing as fast as she can to wring something entertaining out of this mess, but she’s only human.
The film takes a half-assed stab at some kind of racial parable — in the setting, puppets are portrayed as underclass — but it’s so lazy and poorly thought out that it makes Zootopia (2016) look like a Spike Lee joint. In the end, The Happytime Murders is a failure across the board: conceptually, thematically, narratively and, most importantly, comedically. Give it a big miss.
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by Travis Johnson