Home » At the Multiplex » The Happytime Murders
         

The Happytime Murders

“It’s a perfectly terrible joke, but it’s worthy of us.” –Jim Henson

The Sesame Workshop filed a lawsuit against STX Productions over this movie. Brian Henson — the son and heir of Jim Henson, the keeper of his father’s legacy for almost 30 years — directed a movie that got him sued by freaking Sesame Street. And why? Partly, it was the tagline of “No Sesame. All Street.” But mostly, it was because the trailer and the movie had “explicit, profane, drug-using, misogynistic, violent, copulating and even ejaculating puppets.”

The Happytime Murders is a straight-up hard-boiled noir thriller, which is something we don’t see very much of nowadays. What’s more, it’s a noir caper in which humans and puppets live side-by-side in a tenuous coexistence rife with bigotry, bringing up unavoidable comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that no other filmmaker would be stupid enough to go anywhere near. The premise involves the cast of a popular kids’ show — “The Happytime Gang”, clearly modeled after PBS kids’ television of the ’80s and ’90s — getting killed off one by one. The whole movie has a one-joke premise: That it’s puppets doing drugs, having sex, slinging obscenities, and killing each other.

Sesame Workshop obviously didn’t want their iconic children’s show associated with such content. And I feel confident in saying Brian Henson didn’t want that either. But STX Productions? Well, I’m sure it was nothing personal, but how else were they going to sell this? Christ, just look at the movie’s release window — the studio clearly had no idea what to do with this. And I don’t blame them.

(Side note: The movie was initially set up at Lionsgate before they dropped the film and STX picked it up. Looks to me like nobody knew what to do with this.)

Our stage is set in a Los Angeles that’s miraculously free of any racial dysfunction. White people, African-Americans, Latin Americans, people of every color and creed are all united in their mutual hatred of puppets. Our sleuth — Phil Phillips, voiced and operated by Bill Barretta — is one such puppet, and in happier times, he was the first puppet in the entire world to be hired as a police officer. But things went sideways in a fatal on-the-job accident and laws were put in place so that no puppet anywhere could ever be a cop. Phillips got fired in disgrace and took up work as a private eye.

Meanwhile, Phil’s older brother (Larry Phillips, voiced and operated by Victor Yerrid) came to fame playing a goofball police officer on TV as part of “The Happytime Gang”. And just before the show is set to begin syndication — bringing in a huge financial windfall for the cast — someone starts killing off cast members. Phil’s brother is one of the first dead. So now Phillips has to solve the case — reluctantly teaming up with his former partner (Detective Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy) — before he’s framed for the murders.

Right off the bat, we have a problem. A central gag of the movie is that the puppets are just felt and stuffing. The spectacle of puppets exploding into fluff is supposed to be a recurring sight gag. In fact, there’s one joke later on in which a puppet is used as an actual punching bag, and all the punches and kicks in the world are shown to have no effect at all. So… how do they die? Seriously, we can plainly see for ourselves that they don’t have bones or internal organs, so what is keeping them alive and how can they die from a bullet to the head?

If it looks like I’m overthinking this, there are two key points to consider. First and foremost, this is a noir thriller. Of course characters are going to get killed off, that’s kinda the point. And if it’s going to be such a crucial part of the premise that puppets are going to get killed off, it’s equally crucial that we understand exactly how puppets can be killed off. I hate to bring up Roger Rabbit any more than I already have, but there’s a reason that Dip was made into such a pivotal and iconic part of that film.

Secondly, Connie has a puppet liver. It’s a long story how that happened and I won’t get into it here, but we have a human character with a puppet liver. So do puppets have internal organs or not? The answer, apparently, is that puppets have organs whenever it serves the comedy. Heaven knows we’ve got more than enough sex jokes in this picture.

In the case of Connie’s puppet liver, it’s given her an addiction to sugar, which is the puppet equivalent of recreational drugs. Thus we have a vehicle for humor about meth, cocaine, heroin, and so on, while also playing into McCarthy’s established brand of hyperactive and confrontational humor.

(Side note: McCarthy herself reportedly put in some uncredited script rewrites, and it shows. Oh, and of course we get the traditional cameo from her husband, Ben Falcone, and this one actually got a laugh out of me.)

But then we have a scene later on in which Connie directly addresses the fact that she’s part-puppet. She is quite literally human on the outside and puppet (at least partially) on the inside. She’s not entirely one or the other, which gives her a unique place in this society. It’s a potentially fascinating subject that the movie does absolutely nothing with.

Which brings us back to the race allegory. Really, it’s just an excuse to come up with so many derogatory phrases for humans and puppets so the two sides can insult each other. It would be outrageously racist, except that we’re talking about a racial divide that doesn’t actually exist, so nobody’s offended and therefore the slurs are funny because they’re coming from foul-mouthed puppets. There’s no greater point to be made here, and that’s in large part due to the nature of Phillips’ dark past. His character arc is all about coming to grips with the tragic accident that got him kicked off the force, something that would have played out exactly the same way if he was a human. Furthermore, even if everyone didn’t hate him for being a puppet, everyone would still hate him for being an asshole, so the point’s moot.

Then we have Maya Rudolph in the role of Bubbles, the human who works as Phillips’ loyal secretary. But of course her actual costar is McCarthy — the filmmakers were blatant in contriving some reason for the two former SNL cohorts to have an extended sequence together. Elsewhere, the movie introduces the possibility of a romance arc between Bubbles and Phillips, an inter-species romance that could’ve made for some potent inter-racial allegory and expanded on the world of this movie in some neat ways. If only the filmmakers hadn’t ended the movie before this arc went beyond its most basic and initial steps.

The whole movie is like that. The filmmakers show just enough intelligence to prove that they could have made something smart and insightful, but actively chose not to. The world-building is complex and detailed enough that it could have powered a whole franchise if the filmmakers didn’t cut so many corners for the sake of a joke. The central mystery could have been genuinely solid and compelling, if the filmmakers didn’t bring in a plot twist that we could plainly see for ourselves was impossible, all for a shock that’s here and gone with no consequence.

And the puppets? Come on. We’re talking about the freaking Jim Henson company here — we all know for a fact they can make better-looking puppets than this.

I want to say that this works as a satire or a parody, but it really doesn’t. The movie brushes right up to the line of making some kind of sociopolitical point, only to quickly back away. As for parody, that actually makes a bit more sense. Not a parody of the noir genre, because that would mean commenting on or subverting the established norms of the genre, which this movie never really does. But as a foul-mouthed and lowbrow yet subtly affectionate parody of the Jim Henson Company’s established work, that almost works.

That also makes it kind of redundant, as the Muppets and the Sesame Street gang have never been shy about making fun of themselves. Then again, the Muppets have always been subject to certain rules that this movie is gleefully clear in breaking, especially with regard to keeping everything kid-friendly. Far more notably, it’s an old established rule that while Muppets and humans have always shared the stage together, no human has ever been allowed to directly address the felt-like nature of their puppet costars. I’m pretty sure the closest we ever get is in “A Muppet Family Christmas”, in which Doc — the human character of “The Fraggles” — comments on Fozzie and all his weirdo friends. Otherwise, not even the humanoid Muppet characters can ever be referred to as humans or Muppets. In fact, that was the whole point of the “Man or Muppet” number.

I can see the value in a Henson film that directly addresses how weird it would be to live in a world where puppets and humans coexist. I understand how such a parody could celebrate the Muppets and Sesame Street, breaking every rule that the shows were built on to show why those rules were put there to begin with. But I’m somehow not convinced that this was the point. Rather, breaking the rules appears to be an end in itself.

On a miscellaneous note, I have to point out Joel McHale, who chews up scenery with wild abandon as an asshole FBI agent. Leslie David Barker makes a strong impression as the otherwise disposable police lieutenant, and Michael McDonald gets a funny little bit part as a preening anti-puppet bigot. Brian Henson himself puts in a funny little cameo, voicing and operating a sexist crab. And the less said about Elizabeth Banks, the better.

The Happytime Murders doesn’t work as a mystery thriller, because the impossible climax breaks the plot. It doesn’t work as a satire, because it screeches to a halt on proximity to any kind of socially relevant point. It doesn’t work as a parody of noir thrillers or of Henson’s puppetry, because it stops just short of making any direct point about either. There was really no point to any of this except lowbrow fun, and it’s plain to see that the filmmakers are having fun, if nothing else.

The filmmakers put so much intelligence and effort into this movie, yet clearly and willfully shanked every vital shot. The message is clear that they were deliberate in making a movie with crude, loud, hyperactive humor that doesn’t take a brain cell to appreciate. The filmmakers tell us in no uncertain terms that they could have easily made a movie with more depth and relevance, but for better or worse, they actively chose not to.

I’m sure there’s a market for pointless humor void of any intelligence or taste, but it can’t be a very big one. (Remember Hell and Back? Exactly.) On the off chance that this is your type of humor, I’m sure you’ll see this and enjoy it. Nobody else should bother.

Leave a Reply