If you follow musical theater, think Avenue Q. That’s the low-rent neighborhood where characters not too removed from TV’s Sesame Street now live. They grew older only to discover that life doesn’t always turn out to be as rewarding as those upbeat, positive lessons taught several blocks away on the other side of town. Puppets still co-exist with humans and everyone tries to get along, it’s just that things aren’t quite as sunny as Big Bird might have suggested.
Now think of the movies. With a theme not too dissimilar from the 1988 murder/mystery thriller Alien Nation where stranded aliens known as Newcomers tried to integrate themselves into present-day Los Angeles, so it is with director Brian Henson’s ‘R’ rated comic crime murder/mystery The Happytime Murders. It’s still LA, parallels with racial-tensions ignite, and the cops are looking for a murderer, but there’s a difference. Here, the minorities generally abused by the majority are not aliens, they’re puppets. More specifically, they’re Muppet-inspired puppets, and someone’s killing them off.
Once a cop, now a puppet private detective, Phil Philips (voiced in that low-key, Sam Spade gumshoe style of narration by Bill Barretta) finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery after his brother is killed. Reluctantly forced to team with the LAPD and his ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), the two hit the streets searching for clues, delving into the seedier parts of town, questioning puppet prostitutes and their gangster pimps while visiting porn magazine stores such as Vinny’s Puppet Pleasureland or the triple-X movie theaters where films with titles like Felt and Flesh are displayed with uneven letters on the marquee.
With more killings, the feuding partners suddenly discover a common thread; all the victims were once cast members from the canceled cable TV sitcom The Happytime Gang, the show now in syndication on PTN, Puppet Television Network, hence the movie’s cheerful title.
The gimmick of having puppets walking the streets of LA, mingling with humans as if there was nothing more natural, is at first amusing. As Phil the detective laments about the humans around him, “It’s their world. We just live in it.” It’s even more amusing when their language is as X-rated as it is. Imagine hearing Elmo telling the nice Mr. Hooper to f-off. After enjoying years of Sesame Street and a string of family-friendly Muppet movies, plus several Christmas TV specials, having a Henson family puppet throwing f-bombs at every opportunity can’t help but make audiences initially laugh. It’s not that it’s funny, it’s the shock value, reminiscent of how those early scenes from the 1972 X-rated sex and drugs animated feature, Fritz The Cat felt. But like director Ralph Bakshi’s excursion into cartoonist Robert Crumb’s sixties dope smoking feline, things in The Happytime Murders soon sour once the gimmick fades and the f-bombs continue.
The longer the film takes, the more depression sinks in. Technically, after years of experience and knowing what works and what doesn’t in puppet presentation, the film can’t be faulted. Expression in those felt faces as eyes, mouths, and heads move, coupled with good choices for voices, will always entertain. But with a script by Todd Berger and some uncredited writing assistance from McCarthy that mistakes crassness in puppet behavior for adult comic invention, The Happytime Murders is nothing short of cringe-inducing. The jokes fall flat yet are often repeated. Worse, the references to McCarthy looking like a guy somehow becomes a running gag, but there are no laughs and no payoff.
In May of this year, the company behind the production of TV’s Sesame Street filed a lawsuit against the film, believing that using the tagline No Sesame, All Street on the movie’s poster would confuse patrons and lead them to believe that the children’s show was somehow involved with the adult film. (And at this point, in case there are those who still believe that The Happytime Murders is somehow a Sesame Workshop Muppet production, it’s not. Not even close.) The lawsuit was dismissed causing Brian Henson’s film company to not only continue using the tag but to add a new one: “From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street.” Now if only the film had a line as audaciously inventive as that.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 91 Minutes