Director: Brian Henson
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Baretta, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, Dorien Davies, Joel McHale
Many of us grew up watching the Muppets. Whether it was via Sesame Street or one of their many movies, Jim Henson’s puppet creations have been a staple in children’s lives since the ‘70s, mostly in the form of familiar characters such as Kermit the Frog and Big Bird. And now, thanks to Henson Alternative, a branch of The Jim Henson Company that dabbles in adult content, we have an adult version of the Muppets starting to come to the fore. It seemed inevitable – many Muppet fans have well and truly grown up now, so perhaps it was time for that adult version to appear. But has it been worth the wait?
In a world where puppets and humans cohabit far from harmoniously, puppet detective-turned-private investigator Phil Phillips (Baretta) is hired by a beautiful puppet named Susan (Davies) to find out who is trying to blackmail her via threatening notes. In the course of his investigation, Phil gets caught up in a homicide involving an old acquaintance. One of the officers investigating the homicide is his ex-partner on the force, Connie Edwards (McCarthy). As more murders occur, a pattern emerges: the puppet (plus one human) cast of an old television show, ‘The Happytime Gang’, are specifically being targeted, including Phil’s brother who was a member of the cast. Phil and Connie team up to investigate the spate of killings, and with the help of Phil’s secretary, Bubbles (Rudolph), they find out that there’s a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.
Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, last directed a film with puppets back in 1996, and that film was the glorious classic Muppet Treasure Island. Now he marks his return to puppetry with a film that doesn’t even come close to what he achieved with the Muppets. The Muppets could often do what a lot of children’s movies these days do in order to keep the adults entertained: they slyly but easily manage to squeeze in jokes that would pass over the heads of children but would provoke a chuckle from adults. The Happytime Murders just goes all out with its ‘adult’ humour, with none leftover for the kids, naturally, as it’s in no way intended for children. Or so it seems. It does go a little too far at times and just pushes over into pure crass humour that isn’t particularly funny unless you have the maturity of a fifteen-year-old. Not all of it is like that, there are snippets of smart humour, but if the Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler brand of comedy is the sort of thing you enjoy, then this film may strike a chord with you. If not, you’re best to steer clear. Depending on which way you swing, this film will either be a laugh a minute, or a crushing disappointment.
The tone of it is very up and down. It seems to go after a film noir genre, much like 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which has a similar story in that a human private investigator is hired by cartoons to solve a case. Phil Phillips is very much like Bob Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant in Roger Rabbit, or even Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (though Phil is actually quite moralistic, unlike Spade, whilst also being good at the job). But this attempt at the darker genre really, like the humour, just falls flat on its face. It’s easy to see how and where the story was probably originally intended to go, but it plays out as though at some point it fell into the wrong hands and became something that takes the piss out of itself so much that it just becomes self-deprecating and annoying. One minute it will seem dark, and you may even feel sorry for Phil, who can actually be quite the endearing character, but then along comes a supporting character who really just craps all over it and turns it farcical in a ‘laugh-at’ rather than ‘laugh-with’ kind of way.
Strangely enough, one of the film’s only redeeming factors is Maya Rudolph as the sweet but ballsy Bubbles. She’s loyal to Phil until the end, likely due to her romantic feelings for him, and Rudolph manages to shine in a role that she could do in her sleep. Baretta’s vocal performance as Phil is exactly the film noir type, rough and troubled, but there’s no real reasoning behind it. McCarthy is just as you’d expect her to be in her role as Connie. She’s probably a touch more understated here than in her usual performances, but the comedy still rarely hits the mark. Connie is just a very two-dimensional character. The same goes for the rest of the supporting cast – no one really stands out, and sometimes their dialogues sounds like it was probably written on toilet paper about three minutes before it was filmed. Occasionally the odd line will pass, but for the most part there’s not really any character pulling his or her weight enough to make an impact.
There was definite hype for this film, being the first puppet movie from a Henson studio to potentially appeal strictly to adults, but it was all for naught. We’ve had 2004’s Team America: World Police, mocking the likes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, and Avenue Q, the stage show with puppets and similar intentions in its mockery of the Muppets, and they were both relatively successful. But The Happytime Murders just didn’t have nearly as much thought put into it. The jokes weren’t particularly good and its entertainment value is almost non-existent. It won’t be stuck in your head for weeks to come and you certainly won’t be quoting it ten years from now. The hype was unfortunately misguided by a trailer that caused the production company STX to be sued (unsuccessfully) by Sesame Workshop, the production company behind Sesame Street. That was probably as exciting as this production would ever get. It’s a shame it couldn’t live up to expectations. A sequel will be very doubtful (not to mention unwanted), however another shot at something similar wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome. The Happytime Murders could be a learning curve for Henson Alternative, in the hope that they’ll produce something actually for adults in the future.