Imagine an intellectual property for children re-purposed for adults but written for the sensibilities of a child. In a nutshell, that is The Happytime Murders, the hard-R reskin of the Jim Henson muppet IP. The film is not created by children—it is directed by Henson’s son Brian and written by indie filmmaker Todd Berger—but you wouldn’t know it from the scripted jokes.
The film follows a disgraced Los Angeles cop, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), who now serves as a disgruntled P.I. He does, in one lengthy scene, spew silly string from his nether region. Hilarious. His former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), crosses paths with him as he works a case, leading to the boiling of bad blood. She is, again and again, misidentified as a man. Classic.
When Phil follows the lead of a new case to a porno shop, suddenly a body count starts rising. He links the murders to a syndicated television show, “The Happytime Gang.” The further he unravels the case, however, the more he is implicated in the crime.
The Happytime Murders is one quality joke, and that joke is its premise. What if those lovable Henson creations were actually crass, gross, and addicted to purple-sequined lines of sugar? Sounds promising enough.
But when you are making a 90-minute comedy, you need funny scenes. You need to do more than dress up a puppet universe in noir clothing. Hiring comedians can only help so much. When their lines consist of childish confrontations—which is to say literally childish, with lines like “asshole says what?” being used multiple times—you are in trouble.
Simply unfunny, The Happytime Murders has so little substance that it is hard to even discuss it. Just picture a noir puppet version of Bright, only less nuanced in its depiction of institutional racism (did I not mention that the entire world is racist against puppets?). And just as funny. From the script to the soundtrack, there is a lack of imagination that is evident. The only creativity to be seen on screen is with the puppets themselves, which are designed and puppeteered with skill.
If you buy a ticket for The Happytime Murders, you are in for a series of juvenile jokes that make the intended noir vision of L.A. look like a schoolyard blacktop. Very little is clever—the utilization of maple syrup bottles as a stand-in for liquor is humorous the first time we see it. Very little feels thought through.
At least a majority of the No, You Shut Up cast cashed paychecks for this movie. Now there’s a smart adult-themed puppet show! In a year filled with perfectly adequate comedy films, The Happytime Murders just comes off as a blemish.
The Happytime Murders: D
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)