Ex-police officer and puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) now works in Los Angeles as a seedy private detective. When the cast of the popular sitcom The Happytime Gang – including his own brother – begin to get killed one by one, Phil is dragged back into his old life. This includes reluctantly re-teaming with his former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who betrayed him years ago and had him kicked off the force.
The Happytime Murders is a long-gestating puppet comedy directed by Brian Henson. Taking 10 years to bring to the screen, it is sadly a massive disappointment. While its technical achievements are impressive and its lead cast working valiantly to deliver at least a few laughs, the screenplay – credited to Todd Berger, but reportedly with extensive rewrites – simply isn’t funny. A comedy without laughs is no comedy at all.
There are essentially three streams of jokes going on. The first, and least successful, is the joke that presents Muppet-like puppets engaged in graphic sexual activity. There is no real shock value here, since Peter Jackson exhausted such territory almost 30 years ago in Meet the Feebles, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker wrung out what was left in Team America a few years later. All that is left in The Happytime Murders is simply a little gross and tiresome. The second stream presents a string of film noir stereotypes in the mistaken belief that showcasing a cliche is in itself amusing. This second style of joke also torpedoes the plot, since by engaging in well-worn story tropes means making that plot jaw-droppingly predictable. Now and then the film extends to a third kind of joke, one so off-kilter and weird that you laugh at the absurdity. This kind doesn’t happen enough, which is a pity because it’s the exact kind of Henson-esque humour that works the best. Elsewhere the film does a ham-fisted job of inserting a racism allegory towards its puppet characters that is woefully overplayed.
The puppetry is remarkably good, which of course makes the poor screenplay even more annoying. With a smarter script it is clear that The Happytime Murders could actually be rather good. Instead audiences are left with not just a bad movie, but a waste of a good one. Bill Barretta, who crafted his puppetry and voice acting skills with the Muppets during the 1990s and 2000s, is in top form and makes Phil an engaging lead. Melissa McCarthy delivers a typically strong performance, but is let down by a weird and tedious sub-plot about puppet organ transplants and sugar addiction. It is weird that she is in a film so far beneath her talent and status; that is also true of co-stars Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph.
Some viewers may enjoy The Happytime Murders for a few crass thrills. I honestly think such viewers need to start holding their time to a higher standard. Everybody involved has done so much better. To see Henson, whose The Muppet Christmas Carol remains one of the most charming and funny puppet films ever made, resorting to such weak material is close to heartbreaking. View this at your own risk: The Happytime Murders is the worst film I’ve seen in a theatre this year.