Tweaking children’s fare for adult sensibilities is nothing new, and new R-rated puppet flick The Happytime Murders sadly doesn’t add much to the genre in terms of originality or even comedic flair. It’s not the worst film of the year, as US Weekly suggests, or “of all time” as a few critics have pearl-clutchingly declared (insert Kermit-sipping-tea meme here). If the latter ends up being true, by the way, it will enjoy a nice long life, with a crazy cult following on the art-house circuit, so there. I don’t think it will, but I do see this one as a solid Netflix & chill filler in a few months. Maybe that’s all it ever should’ve been. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Melissa McCarthy picks up a Razzie Award this year.
But truth be told, any adult who pays 15 smackers to see a movie touting copious curse words and fornicating puppets should not be expecting The Maltese Falcon or even The Muppet Movie. The story, however, does concern a noir-ish private eye on a super simple and predictable murder investigation. P.I. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) takes a case involving what looks like blackmail but turns into murder. Someone (it’s pretty obvious who, early on) is offing the puppets from a popular TV show called The Happytime Gang, which Phil’s brother starred in along with a bunch of other felt friends and one human — the token hot blonde/Phil’s former love interest, Elizabeth Banks.
Banks’ presence might lead one to believe this flick would have, at least, some snappy and sardonic Judd Apatow/Seth Rogan-esque dialogue (she’s shined in so many of their movies) but it really doesn’t. Nor does it have the crude yet relatable charm of McCarthy’s rollicking turns in Bridesmaids or Identity Thief. What it does have is the expected gross-out humor (Phil’s never-ending Silly String ejaculation was in all the theatrical previews so it will be um, anti-climactic for most moviegoers), weird sex (a puppet octopus is seen getting a puppet cow off by rubbing her udders), drug use (in puppet world, sugar = crack) and a bounty of nonstop “bad” words (yes, this one’s brought to you by the letter “F”).
I found none of the above offensive, really. What I sort of cringed at were the film’s not so subtle attempts to use puppets metaphorically to represent discrimination. Since it’s set in L.A. and around a TV show, we get the stereotypical Hollywood types: Phil's bro, who lightened his skin to be more accepted, dies (spoiler alert!) in a hot tub watching himself on TV, and an asshole lawyer gazing out the window from his swanky sky-high office tells McCarthy how he got a children’s hospital moved to improve the view. These scenes provide mocking chuckles, but then Happytime Murders takes the idea a step further, asking us to imagine a world in which puppets live among humans but are treated like second-class citizens: marginalized, persecuted and lacking job opportunities as well as getting profiled by police and generally being judged for the color of their faux fur. This comes off not only disingenuous but dumb, and worse, it's just not funny.
The film was made by Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son!) and in terms of the puppetry itself, it’s pretty classic stuff: Bert and Ernie–ish dudes with colorful cotton faces and gals with mugs like Janice from The Muppet Show band Electric Mayhem with great Miss Piggy–style hairdos. The blooper reel during the credits at the end of the movie shows the puppeteers in action, animating each character mechanically in front of green screens. It appears the film makes pretty minimal use of high-tech CGI, which in most cases I might applaud. But in this case, the old-school approach and awkward movements by half the cast give the whole affair kind of a low-budget feel, which I’m sure it's not. McCarthy surely ain't cheap right now.
The Happytime Murders was the subject of controversy even before it came out, thanks to a Sesame Street lawsuit against its movie company STX, charging the promo line “No Sesame. All Street” was confusing to fans. A judge ruled it wasn’t. The only people confused were probably little kids, seeing the posters all around town. But it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. As a parent, I also had to explain Sausage Party, Cock Blockers and STD billboards.
The ironic thing about films like Sausage Party, TED and the obvious puppet-y precursors to this, Meet the Feebles and Team America: World Police (or cartoons like South Park, for that matter) is that often the humor is so ridiculous and juvenile, the ones who would find it the most provocative and/or hilarious are the very people who cannot see it yet — the kids (I’m talking tweens and up). That’s when it’s up to the writers of adult humor to not simply go for the easy visual joke but to either push further into utter outrageousness (like this one I wrote a cover story about 12 years ago) or simply think a little broader, writing a script that's good enough for a full cast of humans, and injecting the kind of self-awareness that brings characters both real and handcrafted to life.