It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of The Happytime Murders. It’s an unabashedly crude, 1000% adult comedy starring, well, Muppets. Not the Muppets you know and love, of course—difficult to imagine a strung out Fozzie offering to suck your dick for fifty cents, for sure—but the puppet cast of the new film from Brian Henson is certainly, if nothing else, at least reminiscent of those fun-for-the-whole-family Jim Henson creations.
This makes the film sit in a weird position in the minds of the audience. We feel the tinge of nostalgia seeing these obviously Muppetesque creations, and the nostalgia is assailed by shock at the audacity of the sex and drugs laced comedic noir of the story. Surely, this was the intent. In a way it’s kind of an experiment. Would adult audiences be open to adults only Muppets?
The surface level answer to this is probably yes. After all, The Muppet Show and even the early Muppet movies were laced with layers of humor that worked on one level for the kids and a completely different level for mom and dad. In concept, a film just for mom and dad sounds like something that might just be crazy enough to work. Whether or not The Happytime Murders succeeds in this aim is up for debate.
As a proof of concept, it’s difficult to say that it wouldn’t work. There are some genuinely funny moments in the film that are hard not to laugh at. Often, however, the laughs come in spite of yourself, like a friend whose puns are so cheesy you that you can’t stop yourself from giggling. If some more time and attention had been paid to the narrative and script, The Happytime Murders might’ve been as good as it wanted to be.
The central mystery involves the disgraced first puppet cop in history turned private investigator, Phil Philips (Bill Barreta), trying to solve the murders of the former cast members of The Happytime Gang. Though working on his own, he’s paired with his former human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who almost died in the line of duty thanks to his mistake. Can they put aside their differences long enough to work together?
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the works of Raymond Chandler should have no problem solving the central mystery by the end of the first act. Screenwriter Todd Berger hasn’t done much to make it difficult to solve, though admittedly the mystery isn’t exactly the driving force of the movie. No, we’re here to see puppets say fuck and have sex.
And to be fair, we get that. Boy, do we get that. Hardly a scene goes by without a dirty word or foul sight gag, many of which work pretty well. However, a lot of the jokes feel undercooked and given little fault (witness: “He said he’s gonna sew your asshole shut and just keep feeding you,” which would’ve been funnier if we hadn’t all heard the Wu-Tang Clan). You can’t knock them for being sophomoric when that’s the intent, but did they need to be so derivative?
Two weeks with a good script doctor would have done wonders for the final product, but even without that you can still almost glimpse what they wanted it to be, and it almost kind of works. The puppetry is on point, and just like the Muppet movies, blended seamlessly into a world where humans and puppets co-exist. Interestingly, the world of the movie is one where puppets are seen as second-class citizens and face all manner of subjugation and prejudice.
Conceptually, there’s a lot to mine within the world they’ve set up. It’s not a world I would be against traveling to again in the future. Especially if they work harder on their script next time and not so heavily rely on cheap half jokes. Perhaps what held them back was the uncertainty about how their concept would be received. Crude humor and puppetry is clearly a match that works, but a working combination with a lazy script is too unfairly hindered. Hopefully that’s the takeaway Henson gets out of The Happytime Murders. If so, the next outing, if we get one, might be the adult movie he wants it to be.
The Happytime Murders is now playing in theaters everywhere.