Recently having rewatched The Great Muppet Caper , it’s astonishing how well it holds up. The humor poked affectionate but sharp fun at the genre, the musical numbers could stand up next to any of their contemporaries and Jim Henson’s physical and vocal realizations of his characters were pure magic. There are no gimmicks in Henson’s work, it was simple and sublime. Unfortunately, the apple has not only fallen far from the tree, it’s collapsed off the edge of a cliff. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders is a work of astonishing laziness. It establishes itself as a sex, drugs and fluff filled parody of the noir genre, but quickly proves that despite over ten years of development hell, nobody involved had a single joke to tell.
As Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), our puppet private eye, goes on his first F-Bomb ridden narration, there’s a glimmer of hope. A chance that perhaps Henson is trying to capture the style and sensibility of the genre he’s working in. It only takes about ten minutes for that atmosphere to evaporate, as we quickly learn that all of the puppets talk exactly the same way. They alternate between F-Bombs and sex jokes, often together, with absolutely no other character traits to give them any semblance of life. Sure, there’s a half baked tragic backstory for Phil, but he’s really just a vehicle to bring us from one extremely flat character to the next. The humor never engages with any of the tropes it is supposed to be satirizing. It just repeats them with these puppets cursing their way through the motions.
Melissa McCarthy does occasionally spice things up as Connie Edwards, Phil’s reluctant partner. Sure, she has the whole “sassy klutz who’s surprisingly tough” routine on autopilot at this point but anybody who can deliver a punchline is welcome in this mess. She throws herself into the absurdity so amiably that the puppet performers have to step up their game a little. This provides a few of the film’s mildly funny moments, but since Connie isn’t particularly well developed either, we never grow to care about her. The alleged chemistry between her and Phil falls flat, with all of their exchanges reading like two improv performers with no direction. It’s only when she’s briefly paired up with the always funny Maya Rudolph that some form of camaraderie starts to show, and when the best pairing in your puppet movie doesn’t involve puppets, that’s a problem.
There’s no attempt at a unique visual design. There could’ve been hordes of laughs stemming from what kind of crazy cityscape this mixed society would create abd each location could’ve been a subversive take on the common locals we go to in these films. Unfortunately, this is the same LA we’ve seen in a thousand generic cop dramas, just with puppets littered throughout. There’s no attention paid to how these puppets would adapt their homes or offices to fit a human society, no special locations that only puppets could build. Just generic sets shot with the mechanical cinematography of a soon to be canceled network TV show. It would’ve greatly benefited Henson to set the story in another time period, so that he couldn’t lean on standard cityscape coverage for world building. If they had actually taken the time to construct a new world, perhaps based in the 1940s to keep with the noir theme, it could’ve immersed itself into its influences.
Don’t expect any clever set-pieces either, or really, any set pieces at all. Almost all of the action has been shown in the trailers and mostly involves McCarthy occasionally chasing around or beating up naughty puppets. While the visuals of puppets brutally gunning each other down has a certain novelty, it starts to ware thin when you realize that there was no attempt to push the puppetry beyond its very basic limits.
The Happytime Murders ends with a blooper reel that prominently shows the puppeteers as they act out the “best” scenes. These are phenomenally talented people trying to keep a dying art form alive and their excellent work deserves to be acknowledged. It’s just a shame that the film they’re working so hard on seems intent on stepping on that art form’s throat at every turn. This is an anti comedy, the kind of film that will make an entire generation wonder why we ever bothered making hand puppets into full fledged creatures. That’s a sad reality to face, but considering that the small crowd of people in my theater were howling at every F-Bomb, perhaps they’ve just forgotten what Henson’s work felt like.