Having grown up on Henson properties like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal I acquired an early appreciation for the art of puppetry. It saddens me in this day and age that CGI has all but removed this artform from Hollywood removing a level of magic from films. When it was announced that the Jim Henson Company would be launching an R-rated film under their Henson Alternative banner, it caught my interest.
Adult rated puppetry has been accepted, well almost, since the 70s when The Land of Gorch aired on the first season of Saturday Night Live. Though that was met with negative reviews more recent adult theme puppetry works have fared better most notably the stageplay Avenue Q. The Happytime Murders has been met with mixed reactions from critics and fans leaning more towards the negative side with even calling this the worst film of the year deserving of a Razzie. Personally, I do not believe the film is quite that bad though it definitely has flaws that hold this film back.
In essence, this film is a buddy cop much in the same vein of 2017 Netflix’s Bright, which coincidently was also met with negative reaction, but replace magical creatures with puppets. The main issue with the plot is that there isn’t one. The film plays out like thousands of other films, specifically Basic Instinct, where a former cop, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), leaves the force after a traumatic incident and then takes up the mantle of a private investigator only to be dragged back into the force. To add to the gritty drunken noir genre is one thing but just to synthesize all other films without adding anything else is another thing entirely. One area the film does cover is mixing in social commentary in this film, similar to Bright, that one would not expect from the trailers. From the dialogue approach, it was very shaky with the main character’s full name always being mentioned, even around those he is close with, which in real life would have been shortened to just his first name. Though the chemistry between Barretta and Melissa McCarthy took a while to build up through the film by the end they achieved a solid onscreen presence. This is very disappointing as the premise for Happytime Murders could have provided a breath of fresh air within the entertainment industry. Personally, I am marking this up to the weak screenplay by Todd Berger who hasn’t handled a big budget screenplay before and honestly doubt he will after this.
My biggest complaint with the plot, or lack thereof, is the absence of world building. While I know this movie is supposed to just be taken at the forefront with little thought a little explanation would have been appreciated. This film heavily relies upon the audience being aware of puppets place in Hollywood which can be seen at the beginning of the film with the elderly street performing puppet being beaten up. After Phillips put a stop to it he remarks that he doesn’t need to sing and dance for the man anymore a direct reference to The Muppet Show. Though this film was hamstrung by not being able to show the previous history of the Jim Henson Company, due to ownership issues, the film could have made a false history so viewers could get engrossed into the universe of The Happytime Murders. This would have increased the paltry runtime though many viewers may not have wanted to sit through this film any longer.
Aside from it being a Henson production and having an intriguing premise people went to see the humor in the film. This film made the point of comedy early as the trailers focused on the black humor highlighted by the endless silly string from Phillips. Trailers can act as a great promotional tool but too often they can spoil the events of the film. We have seen studios add a layer of trickery to disguise the best parts of the film with Avengers: Infinity War being a notable example. However, the trailers for this film gave away many of the best moments of the film which could be attributed to its short time frame and reliance on slapstick. The audience in the studio that I was in laughed hardest at the jokes occurring in the trailer though there was laughter through the film thanks to Phillips’ deadpan humor.
There were a lot of moments, especially during the adult theater scene, where callbacks to Meet the Feebles are present. Meet the Feebles is a unique film directed by Peter Jackson in the 80s that had plenty of gross-out humor in a universe devoid of humans. These callbacks in Happytime were Mr. Bumblypants begging for his life similar to the rabbit in Feebles begging for his life albeit for different reasons. The cow being milked, which Phillips disgustingly remarks as an “8-arm reacharound,” in Happytimes is also reminiscent of Madame Bovine’s getup in Jackson’s film. Happytimes has a few more savage jokes scattered through the film which gives the film a well-deserved R-rating though to spoil any further I’ll leave it at that. I would have preferred to see the comedy get a bit raunchier as it seemed to have a cap at points in the film mixed with dry periods within the film may lead to some boredom.
For the cinematic side of things, it is what you would expect for the standards of the Jim Henson Company. The puppet design in this film may be the best part of the film which is no surprise given the pedigree of the company. The use of good editing by Brian Scott Olds salvaged this film by using well-timed cuts to get the audience engrossed in the film. An example of this can be seen during the fight in Lyle’s Autobody where there were continuous shots integrated with short clips to enhance the adrenaline in the scene. Being set in downtown Los Angeles leads to the reality of this film along with giving it a gritty edge.
Honestly, The Happytime Murders may have been better as a series on Netflix instead of a motion picture. That would have allowed for more world building and anticipation for each episode like a puppet version of Jessica Jones. The black humor may have been given away in the trailer but it will keep you entertained for the moments that had to be saved for the theater. The production quality of this film lives up to the lofty standards set by the company which is a hard bar to reach. All in all this film started with a great premise and was let down by a disappointing script.