A film review by Craig J. Koban September 9, 2018

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS j
 

2018, R, 90 mins.

 

Melissa McCarthy as Connie Edwards  /  Elizabeth Banks as Jenny  /  Maya Rudolph as Bubbles  /  Joel McHale as Agent Campbell  /  Leslie David Baker as Lt. Banning  /  Jimmy O. Yang as Officer Delancey  /  Cynthy Wu as Brittenie Marlowe  /  Pamela Mitchell as Topaz  /  Colleen Smith as Cara  /  Dorien Davies as Sandra  /  Mitch Silpa as Tommy  /  Bill Barretta as Phil Phillips  /  Allison Bills as Carol  /  Brekkan Spens as Dick  /  Drew Massey as Goofer - Vinny

Directed by Brian Henson  /  Written by Todd Berger

 

 

In my 43 years on the planet I've never required - nor have ever asked - for any Muppet character to curse up a storm in order to be appealing and funny in a movie.  

Not.  Once.

Part of what made, for example, the late Jim Henson's iconic Muppet characters so endlessly endearing was that they were all, in their own respective and unique ways, as charming as any of the human characters that surrounded them.  While watching Kermit the Frog play his banjo in the middle of the swamp in the original MUPPET MOVIE I was consciously aware that, yes, he was a stuffed felt puppet being controlled by Henson...but he felt as real as any person that occupied the film.  And he had a personality...and vulnerabilities...and dreams. 

This, of course, brings me to THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, which is a would-be hilarious hard boiled detective noir that's set in an alternate world where people coexist with puppets, the latter of which are regarded as second class citizens of little worth (think a cross breed of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, ALIEN NATION and BRIGHT and you'll kind of get the idea).  The film is directed by Brian Henson, Jim's son, whom previously took over for his legendary father after his untimely passing, helming films like THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROLE and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.  THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS could not be anymore different than those family centric flicks, seeing as it's the first puppet centric offering under the "Henson Alternative" banner, a subsidiary of The Henson Company that specializes in "adult themed content."  

 

 

The rather pathetic hook, though, of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that - gasp! - its puppet creations exist in a hard R-rated cinematic universe where they employ multiple variations of the most well known and foul F-word with many of them acting like drug and alcohol addicted lowlifes and/or deplorable sexual deviants.  Some people in attendance laughed at these cute and cuddly looking creations say things like, "For 50 cents I'll suck your dick."  I slumped down in my cinema chair out of uncomfortable disdain.  This...is funny? 

I'm no prude.  At all.  I don't find vulgarity, violence, and sexuality in mainstream cinema offensive, per se.  What I do find offensive, though, is when filmmakers use said material for the sole purpose of generating cheap laughs and eliciting even cheaper shock value.  What makes Brian Henson's approach in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS all the more indefensibly nauseating as a failed cinematic experiment is that he takes a brand that his father made famous and thinks that imbuing it with raunchy material will somehow make it more adult, cutting edge, and subversive.  The problem with this myopic approach is characters - human or not - talking dirty for the sake of scoring tawdry chuckles isn't inherently funny at all, nor is it progressive minded in the slightest in pushing the puppetry art form.  And the puppetry on display in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is indeed sensational, but the puerile manner that Henson has them acting outrageous and mindlessly shouting obscenities shows a shocking lack of imagination.  This film comes off as a work of soul sucking comedic desperation, and from a man that - based on his lineage - should have clearly known better.  

And the world/universe building in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is pretty D.O.A. in most respects, and the beyond obvious attempts that Henson and company are engaging in for shrewd and topical social commentary about the discrimination of fringe groups lacks intelligence and subtlety.  As mentioned, the film has a distinct WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? vibe, seeing as that masterful Robert Zemeckis effort did a virtuoso job of conjuring up a world that showed tensions between toons and humans.  That 1988 film was smart, satirical, and edgy for the inherent material, but it wasn't off-putting smutty like THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS.  There is a kernel of an interesting detective yarn here about a down on his luck L.A. residing ex-disgraced cop turned private eye, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Baretta), that's forced to team-up with his estranged human partner in Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to investigate a series of interconnected murders of former sitcom puppet stars of the cancelled "The Happytime Gang."  Because of society's prejudice against puppets, suspicious fingers begin pointing to Phil as the culprit, albeit without solid tangible evidence, but things don't become any easier for him and Connie when it appears that the mass murders may indeed be an inside job that becomes increasingly hard to crack.. 

There is one redeeming quality that helps THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS avoid a dreaded zero star rating from me: The graceful puppetry on chief display here is pretty astounding.  I've read that well over 120 puppets were utilized throughout the film and that all sets were built with maximum accommodations for the puppeteers.  There are many scenes featuring the various puppet characters in wide shots - from head to toe - that show them walking right alongside their human counterparts, and the end results are all pretty fluid and seamless.  If anything, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS represents a pretty high benchmark effort for its thankless art form.  I fully realize that some sort of computer generated trickery was, no doubt, used here to remove the puppeteers when, for example, Phil is shown driving his car down a street, but the end results are nevertheless impressive.  On a level of pure technical craft, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is an unqualified success. 

But, oy vey, the stellar artifice on display here is all for naught and utterly wasted as these puppet creations are all involved in an egregiously unfunny and witless detective comedy that lazily just tries to break taboos and push buttons instead of doing something truly innovative with the underlining material.  There is potential here for a work of scathing social satire, but all we're really offered up is one scene after the next of nauseating, gross out gagged slapstick and a hyper aggressive attempt to go beyond the boundaries of the R rating.  There's one scene, for example, featuring a cute fluffy bunny character that's caught in an adult novelty store catering to his obsessive porn addiction, which also features a peep show involving an octopus violently masturbating a severely orgasmic cow, leaving milk being sprayed every where.  Speaking of spraying, there's another scene involving Phil and one of his puppet clients having violent sex in his office, culminating in Phil ejaculating so uncontrollably that he turns his walls into a Silly String covered Jackson Pollock painting.  Oh, and that same female puppet later finds herself in the middle of a BASIC INSTINCT inspired moment where she reveals her purple pubic hair to police interrogators. 

While watching these scenes in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS I found myself depressingly asking, "What would Jim Henson think of all of this?  What would he have said to his son after watching the finished product?"  He spent part of his career trying to make puppet themed films that were a bit darker and more mature than what his Muppet films offered up, with inconsistent levels of success.  But he never creatively debased himself in the ways his son does here.  And who precisely is THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS for?  Most definitely not children, although I can see some short-sighted parents accidentally dragging their kids to this.  Older audiences, obviously enough, are the key demographic, but only because THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is so tastelessly excessive with its potty mouthed and hyper sexualized content that they're essentially the only ones that can see it by proxy of the film's rating.  THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS features mature content, but it's not mature, or sophisticated, or imaginative.  It's just lewd for the sake of being lewd with its one joke premise that wears itself out awfully thin very early on it its mercifully short running time.  The film really has no ambitions or artistic vision...other than to be dirty.   

I usually loathe hyperbolic critical platitudes that lambaste films, like "The STAR WARS prequels raped my childhood!"  Yet, part of me - and, most assuredly, the legacy of Jim Henson's cherished puppet creations - felt violated after watching THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS.  It's a needlessly offensive betrayal of the overall brand that made me feel empty as I walked out of the cinema.  One last thing: Sesame Workshop - the company behind Sesame Street - sued the makers of this film for its tagline associations to its immortal TV series ("No Sesame, all Street.").  They felt this film would smear their program's reputation and confuse people seeking out quality family entertainment.  One thing is for sure: THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is guilty of the former, but no one leaving the cinema after watching it would ever be guilty of labeling it as quality entertainment in any form.    

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