Review: The Happytime Murders is D.O.A.
There was a time, not so long ago where The Happytime Murders was my most anticipated film of 2018. I grew up watching the Muppets whether it was Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Muppet Babies, or the various Muppet movies that have been released every few years since 1979. When I heard about The Happytime Murders and that Brian Henson was directing, I was super stoked about it. The Muppets have such mass appeal with millions of adults who enjoy the shows and movies just as much as children. I thought an R-rated film from the son of Jim Henson was a great idea because there is such a huge adult fanbase for puppets that the Henson company could cash in on telling a story that features cursing, violence, and mature themes.
When the trailer for the Happytime Murders hit the web back in May, I watched it with a ton of excitement but was left feeling very disappointed. After watching the trailer, I sat there wondering why Brian Henson and the writers decided to make a film that was based around cheap gross-out humor rather than making a mature and dark film about puppets being murdered. Despite my expectations being lowered immediately after seeing the trailer, I still went into The Happytime Murders with an open mind hoping that the film would ultimately surprise me.
The film follows an ex-LAPD puppet named Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta) that works as a private investigator in downtown Los Angeles. When Phil’s brother Larry is found dead, Phil is forced to team up with his ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to launch an investigation to track down Larry’s killer. As the two begin to look for clues, they discover that Larry’s death is linked to a series of other murders. As they continue to dig deeper into their investigation, they learn that the killer seems to be targeting members of The Happytime Gang, an 80s television series that just scored a multi-million-dollar syndication deal. Now, Connie and Phil must put their past aside to track down the killer behind the Happytime Murders.
The Happytime Murders is one of those films where it seems like Brian Henson, and Todd Berger had no idea who the movie they were making was being made for. If Henson and Berger wanted to make a film that was made to please adult Muppet fans, they only got it half right. If they wanted to make a film that is for audiences that love shocking and crude humor, they failed to make the film edgy enough. The truth is, everything about this film is a massive disappointment because it doesn’t deliver in neither laughs nor story.
I enjoyed the story setup of Phil being a puppet who got kicked out of the LAPD and the idea that puppets are looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens. These ideas aren’t necessarily original, but they could have worked in building the story especially when you add in the whole murder mystery storyline. I do believe there are some good ideas that I wish were handled a lot better. I also feel that if Berger and Henson focused more on developing a darker storyline that had some comedic moments, this could have been the sleeper hit of the summer. Unfortunately, they didn’t go that route but instead attempted to make an edgy raunchy comedy.
The film is relentless in its attempt to produce laughs. The constant failed attempts to be funny is what ultimately killed my overall enjoyment of this film. I know that this may sound strange, but I didn’t laugh once while watching this film. I may have smirked here and there, but I didn’t even chuckle once. The fact that the film’s humor relies so heavily on sexual gags is a big part of the problem. Audiences have seen all of this before with films such as Team America and Sausage Party. The fact that Henson and Berger think that it would be funny to show Connie biting Phil in the penis only confirms how late to the party this movie is. Oh, don’t even get me started on the ejaculation scene that was the featured as the closing gag in the trailer. I seriously cringed when that happened in the film.
The bigger question I have about the film is that I seriously don’t get why Henson or Berger would make the humor is so infantile. Why does an R-Rated puppet movie feel even less mature than a PG Muppet movie made for families? The Muppet movies always had sophisticated stories and jokes, but this throws that whole concept out the window and goes for the cheapest joke they could find. I am all for watching a movie with puppets being killed and cursing but relying on a joke from Basic Instinct to still be funny and relevant in 2018 is a bit of a stretch. Let me not forget to mention, the jokes that are dialogue driven such as a scene where a crab tells Connie, “I know you had crabs before.” These are such dated jokes that weren’t even funny in the 90s.
In terms of the cast, Melissa McCarthy is doing her Melisa McCarthy thing. She’s loud and obnoxious as per usual. She has decent chemistry with Phil, and their relationship becomes a bit more believable in the film’s second half. Maya Rudolph plays Phil’s secretary Bubbles. Rudolph is the most entertaining of all the human cast. The way she played Bubbles like a character from a 50s sitcom. She’s having fun and amusing to watch. Joel McHale plays Joel McHale. Again, like McCarthy, he is just doing his usual shtick.
The lead puppet Phil is a great character and without question the highlight of the film. I feel like when writing the screenplay, Berger wrote Phil as a puppet that is a little rough on the outside but has a heart of gold. He isn’t very likable initially, but as the story progresses, I found myself liking him more and more. Again, I only wish that the entire film played up the whole murder mystery angle rather than trying to be a raunchy comedy. I feel like Berger tried to give Phil some depth, but it was sort of was cheapened whenever the script would try to make his character do something stupid in an attempt to get a laugh.
The Happytime Murders was the first project from the Henson Alternative which is a new division of the Jim Henson company that will be making content strictly for grown-ups. I can only hope that they learn from their failures with this film because I did see the potential at times. I do believe that the Henson company can create adult-centered content based around puppets and muppets. I just think they need to aim a bit higher with the quality of their content rather than trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
While The Happytime Murders isn’t the worst film that I’ve seen all year, it is the most disappointing. I wanted a smart puppet movie made for adults but instead got one of the most infantile and unfunny comedies that I’ve seen in a very long time. Henson and Berger have made an R-Rated puppet film that fails to be clever or edgy but instead comes off as a misguided mess that has no idea what type of film it wants to be. As a fan of all things Muppets and puppets, I am sad to report that The Happytime Murders is D.O.A.