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Review: The Happytime Murders (2018)

The Happytime Murders (2018)

Directed by: Brian Henson

Premise: Taking place in a world where puppets are real people, someone is murdering the cast of a syndicated television program. A Los Angeles police detective (Melissa McCarthy) teams with her former partner to solve the murders.

What Works: The Happytime Murders was directed by Brian Henson, who descends from the Jim Henson Workshop and helmed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. This film is an opportunity for Henson and his crew to stretch beyond The Muppets and to showcase their technical and performative talents. If nothing else, The Happytime Murders is an impressive puppet show. The character design is excellent and the puppets have a range of motion. Among the technical accomplishments of The Happytime Murders, the puppets are completely in frame and shown walking or running. The puppet world and the flesh and blood human world overlap seamlessly and in this regard the filmmakers find the right pitch so that the interaction between puppets and human actors seems natural. The human cast of The Happytime Murders is led by Melissa McCarthy and this is one of McCarthy’s better feature film performances. Unlike some of the movies that she writes and produces herself, the filmmakers of The Happytime Murders know how to use McCarthy and reign in her performance. She is much funnier and more focused here than in a lot of her other projects and McCarthy demonstrates a talent for comic profanity. Aside from being a technical showcase, The Happytime Murders is also an opportunity for the filmmakers to make an adult-oriented comedy with puppets. On that score the movie also succeeds. The Happytime Murders is a hard-R comedy and it is consistently funny in a lewd and outrageous way. The movie is short—it’s only ninety-one minutes and the end credits take up a significant chunk of that running time—and the film moves breathlessly from one vulgarity to the next.

What Doesn’t: As a comedy, The Happytime Murders keeps the viewer amused but it’s just funny enough to get by. There’s not much to it beyond puppets behaving badly. The Happytime Murders is built on a gimmick; the puppets we associate with family-friendly entertainment like The Muppets and Sesame Street are put in violent and sexual situations. If these same jokes were made by an all human cast they wouldn’t be nearly as funny. And that reveals the fundamental problem with The Happytime Murders. It’s a wasted opportunity.  For as much as The Happytime Murders invites comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? this film has much more in common with the television show Crank Yankers. The filmmakers settle for the lowest common denominator with sexual gags and vulgar insults that are funny but are never very imaginative. There’s no depth here. Compare The Happytime Murders to Team America: World Police or Sausage Party or the stage musical Avenue Q. The crass humor in those shows belied an intelligent subtext. They were about something. It was precisely that subtext that made Team America and Sausage Party subversive. The attempt to do this in The Happytime Murders is lazy and poorly conceived. 
Bottom Line: The Happytime Murders is an impressive showcase of puppetry but the filmmakers are never as subversive as they think they are. This film only satisfies in the most craven and unchallenging way and it’s a missed opportunity to do something better.

Episode: #714 (September 2, 2018)