The Happytime Murders is a poorly paced, visually bland comedy that has a lot of ideas, none of which ever come together. It’s built around a great idea — a dirty detective comedy for adults starring both puppets and humans — but outside of a few big laughs, it disappoints on almost every level.
Directed by Brian Henson, son of legendary creator Jim Henson, The Happytime Murders is set in a world where puppets and humans co-exist. In that world, the first puppet cop ever, Phil (played by Bill Barretta), had a falling-out with his partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and is now a private investigator. The two are then forced to work together to solve a series of murders involving the cast members of a popular old TV show called The Happytime Gang.
From that description, you can tell there’s a lot of things to potentially mine. There’s the social inequality between puppets and humans, which can be viewed as a mirror on our own world. There’s the rivalry between former partners, a hard-boiled murder mystery, an exploration of celebrity. I could go on and on with the possibilities. And while the film definitely knows all of those things could, hypothetically, be explored, only the relationship between Phil and Edward lands in any meaningful way. The fact that there’s this prejudice between puppets and humans is set up, then largely forgotten. The Happytime Gang show at the centre of everything is treated as an afterthought, so there’s never a sense of its importance. The murder mystery is dealt with more like a checklist than an actual investigation, completely devoid of tension and intrigue. Characters are killed one by one with little to no fanfare as if the movie is racing to get to a big reveal. All of that would be fine if the movie had some excitement in it.
It does not.
Elizabeth Banks and the rest of the cast of The Happytime Gang. This is basically all you see of it in the movie. (Photo: STX)
Almost every scene in The Happytime Murders feels like it’s buried under quicksand, in part because of the bare-bones story, but also due to the puppets. Now, it’s hard to criticise a puppet movie for being a puppet movie, but the film somehow falls victim to its own ambition in this sense.
More than probably any other puppet movie in history, both the mobility and abundance of the puppets in this film are wildly ambitious. Some scenes have dozens of puppets on screen at once and those puppets walk on two legs, they fight, dance, drive, have sex. From a technical standpoint, it’s undoubtedly impressive. However, because all of these movements have to happen so deliberately — thanks to the work of so many people later removed digitally — most of the time the puppets just feel slow. Then, as a result, everything around them has to adjust and that pacing drags the whole movie down. There are scenes where you’re simply sitting there waiting for puppets to move from one side of the frame to the other.
Which, again, might be okay if the movie really was consistently hilarious and made great use of its R-rating (the US equivalent of a '15' rating in the UK). But it doesn’t. The adult themes certainly allows for lots of filthy humour throughout. Sex jokes, bodily fluids, cursing, all that stuff is in there. But very little of it ever meshes cohesively with the overall story. Just because a puppet can ejaculate silly string for 30 seconds straight, curse up a storm, do drugs, or have his head ripped off his body doesn’t mean it’s automatically funny. These things should be funny but also serve a purpose to drive the film forward, and most of them do not. Ultimately, I kind of got the feeling that if The Happytime Murders didn't have 'adult' jokes, it would have been the same basic movie, and that’s a problem. A few of the gags definitely make a huge impact, but for the most part, they’re forgettable.
Leslie David Baker and Joel McHale question a key puppet in The Happytime Murders. Photo: STX
That also goes for the majority of the puppets and humans in the film, too. Phil is the only lead puppet in the film. With one or two exceptions — none of which are the actual Happytime Gang members — every other puppet is used for one or two scenes then forgotten. On the human side, McCarthy is her usual funny self, though she’s playing a slightly less exciting version of the character she played in both Spy and Bridesmaids: foul-mouthed, assertive, and hilarious. And while that character is always welcome, it’s nothing noteworthy. McCarthy’s joined by Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, and Joel McHale, just to name a few. Rudolph is the standout because her character at least has something resembling an arc, but McHale and Banks are like the majority of the puppets in that they exist for maybe one joke, or two to three quick scenes, and then that’s it.
No one thought The Happytime Murders was going to be some kind of cinematic miracle, but it didn’t seem like too much to ask for something funny and enjoyable, especially with the level of talent involved. Instead, the result is a sad hodgepodge of half-baked ideas sewn together with an undercooked story, riding on the hope that lots of dirty jokes could bring the whole thing together. They fucking don’t.
The Happytime Murders is in cinemas 24 August.