Since I was a child, Jim Henson’s puppets have had a small place in my life. Growing up I was an avid Sesame Street watcher and I thoroughly enjoyed the hijinks of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Elmo, and Oscar the Grouch. Later on, my interests slowly transitioned into other Jim Henson properties such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Babies, Muppet Treasure Island, and the more recent film entitled The Muppets. I’ve never been a huge fan of these shows or films but I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve seen.
Since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, his son Brian Henson has continued on with his work and attempted to reinvigorate the Muppets back to their former glory. It’s been very hit or miss as of late and due to Disney now owning the rights to the Muppets, Brian decided to create a new path in order to appeal to a more adult audience. His newest film called The Happytime Murders does just that and completely abandons the familiar Muppet sensibilities.
In a world where living, breathing puppets live side by side with humans, a puppet private detective named Phil Philips (Bill Baretta) has just taken a case involving blackmail. While investigating who the blackmailer is, he becomes involved in several dastardly events where multiple puppets are murdered. Upon further inspection, he notices a link between the crimes that lead him to suspect that cast members of an ‘80s children’s TV show are being targeted one by one. Now he must figure out who the killer is and what they have to gain from the murders.
The world that Brian Henson and the writers create is very thought-provoking and harkens to our current racial divide. The puppets are all seen as second-class citizens who continually get dumped on for no real reason other than not being human. It’s a great analogy for the white superiority complex but the concept is regrettably only a small morsel in the film as a whole. Instead, the film focuses mostly on a paint-by-numbers plot that’s combined with gross-out humor that only appeals to the lowest common denominator. You may laugh at certain scenes but the actual witty jokes are sadly few and far between.
While I was initially hyped for the film, I still had some reservations due to Melissa McCarthy’s involvement. For me, she’s very hit or miss and a lot of the time she tends to do the same kind of shtick time and time again. I feel that she’s best when her comedic acting is a bit more subdued such as in the films Spy and Bridesmaids. Unfortunately, in this film, she’s supposed to be more of the comic relief partner to Phil Philips’ straight man attitude and it just doesn’t work. Over and over she acts insanely over the top and yells obscenities for no real reason other than to try and make you laugh. The majority of the time it all falls flat and her actions induce countless eye rolls.
Despite my utter disdain for the majority of the film, I actually enjoyed the character of Phil Philips quite a bit. His background is actually very nuanced and his attitude is reminiscent of old-timey noir films. If the writers would have focused the story solely on him, removed the partner aspect, and included more clever gags instead of cheap one-offs then the film may have ended up significantly more enjoyable. On the other hand, The Happytime Murders may be adored if all you’re looking for is tasteless, vulgar laughs and nothing more.
About The Happytime Murders
Synopsis: When the cast of an ’80s children’s TV show begins to get murdered one by one, a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.
Director: Brian Henson
Writers: Todd Berger, Dee Austin Robertson
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Bill Baretta
Runtime: 1 Hour, 31 Minutes