There are a lot of odd trends in movies that have worked their way into Hollywood over the last few decades. Gender swapped films, “reimaginings” and sequels to classic many years removed from theaters have all become part of the growing pile of evidence that Hollywood is running out of new ideas. But one concept that I think is actually proof that there are new ideas out there is the recent exploration of grittier or more, shall I say, “adult friendly” takes on material normally reserved for children. We saw this approach with the animated “Sausage Party” in 2016 and now we’re seeing it again in 2018 with “The Happytime Murders” which takes puppets and makes them raunchy sentient beings in the real world. A film ten years in the making, “The Happytime Murders” attempts to flip the script on the traditional perception of puppets while also attempting to provide a fun cop caper in the process. So is this movie a truly hilarious subversive good time or is it all stuffing and no substance? Let’s dive into this glorified puppet show. This is my review of “The Happytime Murders”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“The Happytime Murders” takes place in a world where puppets are living things but are seen as lower level citizens by human beings. Puppet Phil Philips (Bill Barreta) is a private investigator and former cop in L.A. who was the first puppet to become a police officer until an incident caused him to be forced out of the department. Philips is charged with solving a harassment and blackmail case by fellow puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies) however the investigation puts Philips right in the middle of a murder scene involving a cast member of a popular puppet-themed sitcom called “The Happytime Gang”. After Philips’ brother becomes the next victim in the crime spree Philips deduces that the killer is targeting cast members of the show and reluctantly teams with his former human partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case. The two eventually discover a motive but also end up at the scene of other murders that implicates Philips as the culprit. The pair must race against time to solve the case before Philips is convicted of crimes he did not commit.
I was actually pretty surprised at how subpar some of the performances in this movie turned out to be, specifically with the human actors. I think the biggest problem with their performances is there’s nothing new, unique or lively about them and several of them are kind of phone it in. Melissa McCarthy to me was the most notable problem among the humans in this film. Now she’s still funny in her own way as she always is but there’s clearly not as much creativity or commitment put into this role as her past performances. I mean whatever happened to the crazy and out of control comedian we saw in “Brides Maids”? The last few movies it doesn’t even feel like she’s really trying and “The Happytime Murders” sadly continues that trend as possibly the worst offender. McCarthy does add her signature charm to the role I guess but compared to her better performances and what we know she’s capable of “The Happytime Murders” just doesn’t stack up. Her comebacks are lazy, her timing isn’t always on, and at times the puppets actually seem more lifelike than her. You know what I think might have happened? She wasn’t allowed to improvise as much here because that’s how it feels. It feels like she was restricted to a mediocre script and I hope that’s the case because otherwise she’s losing her touch.
The only human character who truly feels INTO this movie is Maya Rudolph who doesn’t get a whole ton of screen time but serves an important role in the plot as Phil Philips’ secretary Bubbles. Rudolph has given us better performances but she’s the one person who seems to truly revel in the ridiculousness of the plot and her scenes even bring out the best in her good friend Melissa McCarthy. When these two are teamed up we get the best human-to-human interactions in the whole film. They just work so well together and, as usual, I love seeing this duo work off each other on screen. In a way I think this further justifies my thought that McCarthy was limited by the script because when she has someone to work off of that’s the only time she feels like she’s truly having fun. The interesting thing here for me is usually it’s McCarthy bringing out the best in Rudolph, but to see those tables turn and watch Rudolph hold her own and actually help McCarthy be better and more hilarious in a film is pretty cool. Rudoph’s timing works, her mannerisms and character are fun to watch and she even turns in one of the best running gags with Bubble’s uncanny talent for picking locks. Rudolph is an underrated talent often overlooked in favor of her co-stars and if nothing else “The Happytime Murders” reveals to us just how interesting and fun she can be as a comedic performer on her own without being overshadowed by others.
The true stars of “The Happytime Murders” though are the puppets performed by notable puppeteers like Bill Barretta in the starring role along with the likes of Kevin Clash (in his return to puppetry following sexual abuse allegations), Drew Massey and even The Jim Henson Company chair and the movie’s director Brian Henson in a small role. It is really easy to believe these puppets are living things which is, of course, the goal of any good puppeteer. The vocal performances aren’t bad either with Bill Barretta’s take on the typical private eye personal and tropes being a pretty nice touch. Considering that this movie was all about subverting the typical use of puppets for more family friendly entertainment it’s great to see that the filmmakers went all in with making the puppetry believable and entertaining. There are some issues here and there, like the occasional missed mouth movement that doesn’t quite sinc up with the words, but it’s not enough to distract from what is incredibly well done and smooth puppetry work worth commending.
Aside from the great work with the puppets, “The Happytime Murders’” does pay off on its promise to offer crude and raunchy humor that will certainly disturb anyone looking for something a bit more mature and wholesome. “The Happytime Murders” was not made to be delightful. It’s dark, gritty and leans on incredibly over-the-top humor geared towards shock comedy and, for all intents and purposes, it works. While there are numerous problems with “The Happytime Murders” I can’t say I didn’t laugh…constantly…until my ribs hurt. Seeing puppets engage in drugs, sex and even murder especially in some of the most over-the-top and purposefully grotesque ways imaginable might come off as a cheap gimmick to some but for me it accomplished its purpose. Like “Sausage Party”, “The Happytime Murders” plays perfectly off of subverting expectations because were not used to seeing puppets used in this manner. The experience is just odd in a good way, sometimes reaching for the bottom of the barrel clichés while other times offering something new that we never expected and even the stuff we saw in the trailers is just as hilarious when we finally see it on the big screen. I know it’s humor of the lowest form, reaching for easy laughs but I can’t deny that in the context of this film and with the utilization of its gimmick characters it works. It had my gut busting and that’s more than most comedies can say.
I also loved the character designs and how well the puppets were incorporated into the real world. There’s still a child friendly quality about them, but each puppet feels like a real person in the sense that some are grimy, some aren’t well kept, and some even utilize odd methods of making themselves more attractive including literally bleaching their skin and recoloring their hair. There’s an actual culture built around the puppets that helps them feel perfectly at home in the world of humans and there’s even some social commentary mixed in about how puppets are seen as second class (although I’ll discuss later why this commentary doesn’t completely pay off). While “The Happytime Murders” can’t boast about being a movie with substance, in the end it’s a fun and entertaining time for those looking for its brand of raunchy comedy and does enough to immerse you into it’s oddball world where fluff and flesh coexist.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The problem with “The Happytime Murders” is it wastes a good story. It’s actually interesting to see how things play out and I found myself genuinely intrigued to see how this cop caper would conclude. Because we, the audience, get to see where Phil Philips is when the murders take place we are aware he’s not the culprit so we want to see him proven innocent and we anxiously await the identity of the murderer. However, when all is said and done for a film meant to embrace subversion it certainly follows the most basic story. Pretty much everything about this movie’s plot is predictable and if it weren’t for the fact that its puppets living among humans it’d be the most bare bones cop movie of the past few years. By the middle of the second act I called everything from the identity of the killer, the poorly hidden twist that begins the final showdown and does NOTHING to add to that moment, and even the eventual conclusion of that final fight. Is it fun to watch? Yes! But the whole idea of the movie is completely wasted on a bare bones story we’ve seen before time and time again…just not with puppets. It feels like the imagination ended with the character designs and the fun crude humor that litters the story.
That’s unfortunate because there are glimmers of something deeper and timelier. Themes of prejudice and self-destruction are littered throughout this film especially once we get a glimpse into the events that led to Philips being kicked off the police force but they’re all wasted as footnotes to progress a shallow and predictable plot. I would have loved to see the movie further explore the public’s judgement of puppets more fully. Seeing such a concept done with puppets could have made for a more universal look at how prejudice works in society. Hell the idea of a cop being part of a minority and judged for being part of that group alone would have been a relevant and resonant message. However, there no conviction here, no commitment to the message and the possibilities. Instead it settles for the same old song and dance with a bland script and very little emotional payoff. “The Happytime Murders” squanders what could have been both a hilarious and socially aware story and settles instead for simply trying to be as ridiculous as possible. While it fully embraces it’s ridiculous humor it doesn’t really embrace any of the aspects that could have made it an even more significant film. To use a horrible simile, it’s like opening a bag of chips half filled with air. What you get is satisfying in its own way but you can’t help but feel like you got robbed of even more joy probably due to interference from those who sold it to you.
With “The Happytime Murders” it really depends on what you’re looking for. On one hand it is a funny, subversive comedy that takes the concept of puppetry and applies it to a more adult friendly atmosphere with swears, sexual humor and even reference jokes abound and most of them hit, at least for me. On the other hand if you’re looking for a movie that brings all that into a story with substance and significance well you’ll be sorely disappointed. “The Happytime Murders” doesn’t waste its gimmick per say, but it doesn’t scream creativity either. Brian Henson and the rest of the filmmakers seem confused as to what they wanted to do with the property especially sense the story is littered with clichés and predictability while the humor involving the puppets is not. For me the story disappointed as did many of the human performers, including a seemingly phoned in Melissa McCarthy, but the puppetry worked well and the voiceovers for the puppets feels much more lively than their human counterparts. It’s a confusingly entertaining film to say the least. If The Jim Henson Company was looking to follow in the shoes of “Sausage Party” they partially succeeded giving us an outrageous take on an art form traditionally utilized for children. But where “Sausage Party” went right is it fully embraced the message of the film, gave us a good story, and had the balls to say something meaningful. “The Happytime Murders” kind of tries to do this but doesn’t go all in leaving us with a shell of a better film that, while fun and hilarious at times, is a bit of a letdown especially when you consider it took ten years to finally get it to the big screen. Funny jokes may make for a FUN movie, but they don’t not always equal quality. I could have respected this film much more if it went all to one extreme or the other, but instead it just feels confused which, sadly, also makes it unfortunately forgettable.