- Release Date: August 24, 2018
- Directed By: Brian Henson
- Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph
- Rating: R
- Run-Time: 1h 31min
Who framed Phil Philips?
That’s the central narrative question of “The Happytime Murders,” and if that sounds familiar, it won’t be the only thing. In addition to Robert Zemeckis’ cartoon noir, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” this newer comedy crossover within the buddy cop genre also draws heavily from “Zootopia” — only with far less interest in confronting any of the hard questions about prejudice tied into its high-concept conceit.
So what’s new that “Happytime Murders” brings to the table? Muppets! And not just any Muppets — R-rated Muppets! Muppets that swear and do drugs (sugar, actually) and have sex!
Oh boy, do they have sex.
We’re introduced to this world wherein puppets are the underprivileged minority, through opening narration from our hardboiled P.I. protagonist Phil Philips (puppeteered by Bill Barretta) and a montage of other cuddly Henson-esque creations being discriminated against. In one of these, a rabbit gets cut off by a human driver and shouts after him with a wounded lilt, “Hey … fuck you!”
Are you laughing? If so, this movie may be for you. The shock value of “Sesame Street”-style puppets being raunchy may not be “Happytime Murders’” only joke, but it’s certainly the main one. In this respect and others, the film blows its wad early.
Like many a detective story, this one starts with a visit from a femme fatale client, in this case the sexpot puppet redhead Sandra, who asks Phil to find the identity of her blackmailer. But in pursuing the case, Phil becomes the primary witness to a series of murders of cast members from a cheesy ‘90s sitcom called “The Happytime Gang.” One is his brother Larry, who has used his fortune to bleach his blue skin and graft on a more humanlike nose, but still needs to pay off some Scientology dues.
“The Happytime Murders” tells its story competently enough, but it’s a story that’s been told many times before, without enough new ideas to really make it worth the price of admission — depending on how much humor mileage you get out of seeing a puppet ejaculate silly string.
The script by Todd Berger is at its best in moments like this, when real-world injustices are incongruously, almost offhandedly applied to this alternate, puppet-inhabited reality.
Unfortunately, these darker implications mostly exist on the fringes of a generic redemption story littered with puppet bodily humor — to my mind, the far less interesting aspect of the film’s Muppets-after-dark conceit.
As a result, “Happytime Murders” feels at times like an “SNL” sketch stretched to feature length that suddenly starts taking itself oddly seriously in the last act. This impression isn’t helped by Melissa McCarthy, who plays the human half of this buddy cop duo, Phil’s former partner with a bone to pick regarding the incident that got him kicked off the force.
McCarthy has turned in worthy comic performances in the past (if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch “Spy”), but her shtick is genuinely distracting here. At no point does it seem like she’s playing a real character; she’s just in improv mode, trading insults and escalating every conflict whether it makes sense or not.
In revealing her backstory, which gives her a stake in the person-puppet racial divide, the film briefly flirts with depth for McCarthy’s character — then she shoots out her car stereo for no reason, and all that goes out the window. In contrast, the rest of the cast — puppet and human — does a pretty good job of playing even the most outrageous material straight, with particular kudos due to Joel McHale as a feckless FBI agent and Maya Rudolph as Phil’s sweetheart assistant, Bubbles.
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“The Happytime Murders” tells its story competently enough, but it’s a story that’s been told many times before, without enough new ideas to really make it worth the price of admission — depending on how much humor mileage you get out of seeing a puppet ejaculate silly string. At the very least, most of the physical gags, particularly those involving puppets, are timed impeccably well.
To be fair, even the best Henson productions were more earnest and charming than laugh-out-loud funny, and “The Happytime Murders” — directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim — echoes that charm and creative energy in some of its worldbuilding. Whether it’s old London in “A Muppet Christmas Carol” or Venice beach here, there’s something captivating about Henson’s establishing shots showing people and fuzzy felt critters coexisting in the same spaces, not to mention the pre-credits reel of behind-the-scenes footage showing how it was all done.
But “Happytime Murders” is also clearly going for something more than past Henson productions, both in terms of laughs and thematic richness. On both counts, it reaches just far enough to make you wish it would go farther and become something more than just the dirty Muppet movie. It never does, however, and I left the theater hoping Hollywood might someday entrust a movie to Henson and his fellow puppeteers without anchoring it to such a shallow gimmick.