Within about the first ten minutes of The Happytime Murders, an octopus jerks off all of a cow’s udders in the backroom of a sleazy puppet-run porn shop. This is the most gracious choice this damned movie makes. The viewer has two options after this one-cow bukkake: realize the rest of The Happytime Murders is going to be this unfunny and leave, or stick around for more of the same fluff. And hey, if you like that joke, there’s plenty more puppet jizz and murder to sate your humorless existence!
The Happytime Murders is a puppet noir comedy with ugly puppets, a terrible mystery, and no jokes that land. In a mere eighty-five minutes, The Happytime Murders could make both Jim Henson and Humphrey Bogart roll over in their graves. The Happytime Murders takes place in an alternate Los Angeles, where puppets and humans coexist. For no discernible reason, puppets are looked down upon on in this society, considered little more than dumb socks that just want to sing and dance for man.
Phil Phillips – voiced by longtime Muppet puppeteer Bill Barretta – was the first and last puppet cop, but now the disgraced Phillips is a private eye for puppet-related crimes. When the cast of the puppet-human integrated 90s sitcom, The Happytime Gang, start getting murdered, Phillips teams up with his old human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to investigate the case.
But the true purpose of The Happytime Murders is simply to watch the childish engage in the obscenely adult. Puppets are shot, fucked, torn apart, and snorting drugs constantly throughout Happytime. Or in one case, a character that offers to suck Melissa McCarthy’s dick for drug money dies immediately after. In fact, every puppet character features some combination of sex and violence in an effort to shock the audience into laughter. If at first it doesn’t succeed, Happytime Murders tries and tries again. Almost every single “joke” that Happytime attempts is told multiple times, in case the audience was overwhelmed with such uproarious laughter that they couldn’t hear them the first few times.
Somehow, The Happytime Murders is directed by Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, whose last film was the 1996 Muppet Treasure Island. Credit where it is due, he even directed The Muppet Christmas Carol, which might be the definitive filmed version of Charles Dickens’ story, if for no other reason than it has Michael Caine terrified of a ghost version of Statler & Waldorf. But utilizing puppets for his first film outside the Muppet universe, Brian Henson seems like he’s not only striking against what his father made, essentially eschewing what makes the Muppets continuously enjoyable, but also trying to open up the world of puppetry. What always made the Muppets work is that these were surprisingly fleshed (fluffed?) out characters were engaging and charming. With Happytime Murders, they’re simply cyphers to deliver gross-out jokes and disturb any families that might’ve accidentally brought kids to the theater.
Oddly, even the puppetry in this puppet film isn’t that strong. When two puppets have sex, it actually feels like watching a child slam two puppets together. Even the syncing with the dialogue doesn’t look decent, and as McCarthy once states, the mouths look like “vaginas of felt flapping around.” During the bloopers that run during the credits, it’s shown just how many people run each character, and even with some needing three people, none of them can make this look good.
But the humans don’t have it much better in The Happytime Murders. Actors like Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks are completely wasted in thankless roles, and the screenplay by Todd Berger (It’s a Disaster) makes the humans just as empty as the puppets. McCarthy holds her own as Edwards, and actually makes this scenario believable, despite the weak screenplay. As always, Maya Rudolph – playing Phil’s cartoonish secretary Bubbles – is able to rise above the material and shine. The few scenes where McCarthy and Rudolph team up and play off each other, with no puppets around, offer the film’s only legitimate jokes.
The Happytime Murders is a half-assed attempt at hardboiled humor, a puppet parody that attempts to shock in the vein of Team America: World Police or Avenue Q, but without the wit that made those work. Henson and Berger seem to think that just fazing their audience is the same as entertaining them. But just grossing out your audience isn’t going to solve your problems and make your film work. In the end, you’re just jerking off a cow.