Puppet Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta) is a disgraced cop working as a private investigator. When the stars of an old puppet TV series called The Happytime Gang start getting killed off, Phillips is forced to team up with his old human police partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the mystery. Directed by longtime Muppeteer Brian Henson (son of Muppets creator Jim Henson) The Happytime Murders is vulgar, raunchy and downright inappropriate at times, but unfortunately it also isn’t nearly as good as it could be.
Fans of Henson’s adult-themed improv show Puppet Up! won’t be surprised to see him bring this type of humor to the big screen, and while I respect the effort by Henson and his incredibly talent crew, the execution wasn’t quite there. It’s very possible that this particular genre works best in short form.
The film is front-loaded with a fair amount of gratuitous puppet sex and violence, but as the film progresses and settles into the story, the shock and aw dissipates, but we’re not given anything really dynamic to replace it. What follows is a rather one-dimensional, formulaic murder mystery. I’m not saying I was expecting Chinatown, mind you. This is after all a movie featuring puppets ejaculating silly string, but something of interest has to carry the story.
I think another one of the reasons the film doesn’t gel is because Phillips is the only puppet of significance in the film. While he interacts with a fair number of puppets throughout the film in his investigation, virtually every other puppet is a secondary or tertiary character. There are a few puppets whose have potential to be really fun characters to watch but are given precious little screen time. Instead, a lion’s share of the film is focused on Phillips, who is written as a disgraced cop who happens to be a puppet. Realistically, this part could have been written as a human with very few changes to the script.
There are a few laughs to be had beyond the shock value of the puppet sex and violence, but while screenwriter Todd Berger’s humor can be smart at times, it’s a style of humor that is very specific, resulting jokes that could be interchangeable between characters. I never felt a joke was character driven, but rather written by a writer with a particular sense of humor and given to someone to say. There are some dialogue exchanges, particularly between Phillips and Edwards, where I felt the jokes were written for one character, not two separate characters with their own senses of humor. Comedies can often benefit from more than one writer, and this is a perfect example why.
There is an incredibly strong comedic cast in the film, including McCarthy Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks and The Office’s Leslie David Baker, all of whom were unfortunately wasted. There are literally only a few funny lines between them. McCarthy has her moments for sure, and her character is fairly fleshed out enough to give McCarthy a little bit to work with, but not enough.
As a long-time fan of puppeteering, I respect the heck out of the craft, particularly in a feature film format, but these craftsmen and performers deserve a better script than this. I hope Henson comes back with a stronger screenplay, because I would be more than happy to see this adult themed puppet genre on the screen again. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy The Happy Time Murders, but it fell far short of its potential.