'The Happytime Murders': Melissa McCarthy in a Not-So-Great Puppet Caper

By Kurt Loder

August 24, 2018 6 min read

You'd never expect to hear even the sultriest Muppet explain an affliction from which she suffers — the "I'm-a" disease, she calls it — by saying, "If I'm-a get next to it, I'm-a f—- it." The Muppets are funnier than that. I also doubt they'd ever be involved in a scene in which we see a delirious cow lying udder-up on a table while getting a tentacle-job from a depraved octopus.

Actually, that is kind of funny, at least the first time you see it.

"The Happytime Murders" isn't a Muppet movie, but it looks like one. Its director, Brian Henson, is the son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson, and in the years soon after his father's 1990 death he directed two real Muppets movies: "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992) and "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996). Now, for reasons best known to himself (I hope), he's decided to enlarge the franchise and steer it into the arena of adult entertainment. (If humans were doing some of the things we see puppets doing in this R-rated film, it'd be rated X.)

The movie is not without amusing moments, and it has game comic performances by Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph. But there are unconquerable problems. First of all, while there's nothing wrong with infantile humor, even infants grow tired of it. (They nod out; when they grow up and go to tiresome movies, they'll walk out.) Secondly, the sort of audience that might laugh all the way through this picture might not catch all the old-movie allusions upon which the naughty gags are draped. (Although the elements lifted from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" should be clear.)

For example: Phil Phillips, the lead puppet (voiced by Henson-world vet Bill Barretta), is a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking ex-cop now getting by as a low-rent P.I. with a drab office on the fringe of LA's Chinatown. Very Sam Spade, but with a blue-felt face. His sweet, seen-it-all secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph, not a puppet), is an echo of Effie Perine, Spade's receptionist in "The Maltese Falcon." And the first of Phil's clients that we see — a devious redhead named Sandra (Dorien Davies) — can only recall Mary Astor's double-crossing con artist in that film. There's also a pair of lawmen modeled on the "Falcon" cops played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane — one's a good guy (Leslie David Baker, always fun to watch) and one's a hostile dick (Joel McHale, also fun). In addition to all this, there are also nods to old buddy-cop and serial-killer flicks larded in among the dirty wisecracks and Silly String ejaculations (the latter in a noisy puppet-porn scene, included in the trailer, that goes on quite a bit longer than it should).

There's also a mystery to be solved here, although after a while it becomes difficult to care much about its solution. It revolves around a popular '80s TV puppet show called "The Happytime Gang," the cast of which included one human member, a burbly blonde named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), who was also Phil's girlfriend at the time. Now, 30 years later, the "Happytime" actors, still awaiting a big residuals payout, have fallen on hard times: one runs a porno store, two others own a roadside barbecue joint, things like that. Also, somebody has started murdering them.

Phil would be assigned to this case if he were still a cop; he was the best. But he was bounced off the force after inadvertently killing a puppet kid while trying to save his partner, Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy). She and Phil are now bitterly estranged — long story — so of course they find themselves reteamed (Phil as a "consultant") for this particular investigation.

The movie's puppet action is pretty impressive; the picture couldn't have been easy to make, but the strain doesn't show. There are some cute scenes (McCarthy has a good one snorting puppet drugs and displaying her genius for rowdy line readings) and some clever passing touches (like the CSI team that shows up to bag the stuffing after puppets get it blown out of them by the shotgun-wielding killer). I can't imagine anyone getting really agitated about the sex stuff — these are puppets, after all. Still, the flash of puppet pudendum that constitutes a salute to the famous Sharon Stone scene in "Basic Instinct" is maybe a step just a little bit too far. And the attempt to equate the puppets' inferior status in the human world with the status of black Americans is clumsy and dumb.

Having seen this movie, it's still unclear to me precisely why it was made. Was it Henson's intention to prove that puppet raunch could be a cool cult thing with commercial appeal? OK. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone already did that with "Team America: World Police." And their cool thing was way cooler.

Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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