Film Review – The Happytime Murders
The Happytime Murders
I can only imagine all of the parents that’ll see the posters for The Happytime Murders (2018) and think that it’s a family-friendly film.
This ain’t the kind of puppet adventure you’re used to. When we see characters on screen that look and sound like Kermit the Frog, Elmo, or Gonzo, we automatically assume they’re there to entertain with a wholesome kind of whimsy. But instead, the production tossed all of that out of the window, opting for a crude, vulgar, and nasty story. It flips the expectation on its head – instead of learning our ABC’s or breaking out in song and dance, these puppets are hard drinking, chain smoking, sex-obsessed heathens. Instead of Sesame Street this has more in common with Team America: World Police (2004).
The tone is stunning with its crudeness, especially since it’s directed by Brian Henson. Brian is the son of Jim Henson, the genius behind all of the famous puppet characters you’ve grown up loving. Brian has also directed previous Muppet films, including Muppets Treasure Island (1996) and more notably The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), which has become somewhat of a minor classic. To see him take such a dramatic turn with The Happytime Murders goes to show that he’s willing to go from one extreme to the other.
But is going this far off the beaten path a good thing? The jokes vary from toilet humor to over the top violent. We have puppets engaging in “puppet on puppet crime,” taking drugs, working in back alley sex shops, and going on psycho-level killing sprees. We watch as the narrative takes pleasure in watching puppets get their heads blown to smithereens. Seeing those shots call to mind the infamous head-exploding scene in Scanners (1981), only this time cotton balls replace the blood splatter. There are moments that are so explicit that it’s hard to describe within a review. For example: there’s an abundant use of silly string, meant as a specific kind of bodily fluid that I’m sure you can guess without much difficulty.
Henson’s direction and Todd Berger’s screenplay (with Dee Austin Robertson sharing story credit) weaves a noir tale that contains all the familiar tropes – the private eye, the femme fatale, and an investigation that tilts between coherency and absurdity. In this world, puppets are viewed as second-class citizens to their human counterparts. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) is a puppet who was once on the L.A. police force but, after an on-the-job tragedy, now works as a private investigator. His latest case involves the Happytime Murders, in which the actors of a popular T.V. show (“The Happytime Gang”) are suddenly being killed one by one. Meanwhile, Phil encounters a mysterious woman named Sandra (Dorien Davies) who showed up to his office asking for his help in solving her own case.
If there’s one thing that works well, it’s how Henson and Berger depicts Phil’s emotional state dealing with life outside of being a cop. He respects the job and was good at it, but since that was taken from him he has fallen into a state of self-loathing. The reason behind it comes as a complete surprise, in our screening audible gasps were made. That event has stuck with Phil, and acts as both a motivator and a hindrance for himself in the present. He joins forces with his old partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) in hopes that they can help each other stop the next murder from happening. But like in many noirs, old resentments and remaining grudges come back to haunt our protagonists, throwing a wrench in their investigation.
The shock value of the comedy is funny, especially in the first act where we’re tuned in mostly to see how far the production is willing to go with this approach. After awhile though, the shock value wears off leaving us with the story to rely on the rest of the way. This is where the film begins to sag. The narrative, with characters and a plot connecting one scene to the next, is fairly mundane and predictable. I wonder why the script took such a direct path with its film noir aesthetic. If we take away the sex, drugs, violence, and puppets, we’re left with a story that we’ve seen before. By the time we get to the third act where all of the secrets are uncovered and our protagonists face off against our villains, the narrative is operating in neutral mode, not nearly as funny or energetic as it was at the beginning.
The best part of The Happytime Murders is a credit sequence in which we get to see the real-life actors and actresses performing and voicing their puppet counterparts. It was hilarious seeing these people hiding outside of the frame or wearing green outfits to be digitally removed in post-production, manipulating their characters during a sex scene, shoot out, or spitting out dirty language. That sequence alone is worth the price of admission.