Somewhere between the end of summer movie season and the start of prestige movie season, the final gasps of mindless entertainment echo out into the void. Some might grab your attention from back of the multiplex, promising a good time—“hey, the son of the guy who created the Muppets directed this one”—but you should always be wary. Yes, even of the inappropriate puppet movie, “The Happytime Murders”.
The movie is indeed the brainchild of the heir to the Muppet throne, Brian Henson. It’s the first movie produced by Henson Alternative, which is the wing of the Jim Henson Company dedicated to mature media starring Muppets—the content we’ve all been clamoring for, of course. “Mature” can mean a lot of things: sometimes it denotes a movie that handles complex or difficult themes; sometimes it’s a marketing label slapped on pieces of media that appeal squarely to 15-year-olds. I’ll let you guess to which camp “The Happytime Murders” belongs.
The trailers were promising. It’s a detective noir/comedy—but with puppets! Puppets that curse and do drugs and have sex and kill people! One cannot deny the comedic potential of such a preposterous dichotomy, but it turns out that it’s only funny for about the length of a trailer. “Look, the puppets are vulgar” is practically the only joke this movie has. If you want to make a comedy about Amish computer technicians, you have to do more than insert copious shots of Amish people fixing computers. “The Happytime Murders” barely even has jokes: it just expects you to laugh at the mere mention of profanity or sight of puppet private parts.
That bet pays off one or two times, maybe, and less if you’ve already watched the trailer. 90 minutes of, “puppets were clean during your childhood, but now you’re older and they’re raunchy” is truly embarrassing to partake in. What keeps this movie from becoming Oscar the Grouch’s new home is, surprisingly, the plot. It’s nothing special, but it holds your interest in the way that an episode of any detective show would. This alleged ‘comedy’ may be utterly unfunny, but at least watching the mystery unfold is mildly interesting.
Though when it comes to the plot, it stops mattering that the puppets are puppets. The obvious movie to compare “The Happytime Murders” to is the puppet-starring satire from the South Park team, “Team America: World Police”. Aside from actually being funny, “Team America” contrasts “The Happytime Murders” in a major way: it uses puppets to further emphasize its message that American nationalism is ridiculous. In “Happytime”, puppets are treated like second-class citizens, but nothing is done with this metaphor. It’s not operative, nor does it end up meaning anything. It’s just… there.
At least the puppeteers aren’t. Via a mix of green screen suits, careful camera angles, and masterful puppeteers, “The Happytime Murders” pulls off the integration of moving puppets into the real world, no strings attached. The movie’s credits offer a peek into the technical wizardry that brings the puppets to life. The logistics behind these visual effects are rather impressive.
But little else about the movie is. Melissa McCarthy’s presence is a constant reminder of how hilarious she is when she’s given the right material. But it’s hard to see why “The Happytime Murders” would be the right material for anyone past their early teen years—the highest compliment I can give it is that it’s watchable.