There is nothing worse in cinema than when a film has a fantastic idea or a great fictional world but fails to capitalise on it. The Happytime Murders had all the potential to be this generations Who Framed Roger Rabbit but squanders it on a generically flat story, bland characters and immature comedy. Like that seminal 80s flick, The Happytime Murders takes what was usually known to be family friendly, in that case cartoons but here it is puppets, and combines it with adult storytelling. Also like that film it features a clever mix of human performers and performances from well..less real people. It feels wrong to compare two films that are many years apart and have very different goals in mind, but it is evident that director Brian Henson is a huge fan of Robert Zemckis’s classic.
For one both are crime stories influenced by the days of noir. Each features a grizzled washed up Private Detective, albeit in this version our PI is a cotton stuffed puppet by the name of Phil Phillips (voiced with gruff charm by Bill Barretta). Also both films are set in a world whereby the childish aspects (in this case puppets) are integrated within human society and in which nobody mentions how weird it is. It just exists. This is the part of The Happytime Murders that should work really well. In a clever move, these puppets are seen as second class citizens. Bullied, victimised and prone to being part of the economically deprived part of the spectrum. In this world of Trump and bigotry, Henson could’ve made some insightful comments on equality and acceptance. Instead we get puppets jerking each other off!!
It’s just one of many opportunities that are squandered here. Another is the use of comedy greats Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph. All are probably some of the best comedic actresses working today, and outside of Rudolph (who gets some good mileage out of her sweet-natured perkily capable secretary), none of them get much material to work with. McCarthy seems particularly unsure of what to do. Frequently falling into her old schtick of just yelling profanities to drum up mild laughs. The Happytime Murders casts her as Detective Connie Edwards, a once renowned cop before becoming bitter and miserable after her partner failed to protect her from a scumbag puppet. That partner just so happens to be the washed up Phil Phillips. The first puppet police officer but forced out when it was deemed he failed to protect her because he wouldn’t shoot another puppet. Their interactions are sporadically fun, building a decent amount of chemistry despite one of them being full of fur.
The story just doesn’t give them any real meat to keep things exciting. It is pretty much a ropey cliched story of a damsel in distress, puppet murders, drugs and sex. Noir 101. Now Roger Rabbit wasn’t exactly wholly original in its plotting, wearing its influences very much proudly. But it wrapped them in a unique world, filled with crazy juxtapositions. Happytime feels lost as to what to do with its admittedly fun universe. Its answer, it seems, is to soak everything in puerile sense of humour that is so incessant it becomes a little boring. Now I like silly R-rated comedy as much as the next person, and a number of the gags are chuckle inducing (a silly string orgasm is a particular highlight), but too often Henson and his team think puppets swearing or doing sugar (i.e this world’s version of cocaine) or looking at porn is funny. Sure a 13 year old may love all this, but where are the smarts? If you’ve watched anything else by The Henson Company, well pretty much anything Muppet related, then you know there is almost no one better at constructing delightfully clever wisecracks, whilst also valuing the power of a pratfall. It almost feels like this was the sort of project where after years of being family friendly they thought fuck it let’s just be rude, without stopping to think of actual jokes.
Now you may just think I’m being overly critical, after all this is just a light-hearted film about puppet homicide, but puppet films can be adult and rude whilst also being genuinely surprising, and unpredictable and clever. You only need look at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s hilarious Team America to know it can be done. A film that could feature gratuitous scenes of puppets fucking whilst also making acerbic swipes at US foreign policy. It is a shame as there is stuff to like here. The puppetry work is of course staggeringly detailed and technically masterful, with some of the background puppets a joy to gaze upon. There are a few good set-pieces, including a drug-induced McCarthy spluttering her way through a dialogue with her superior and a cheeky reference to ‘that’ Basic Instinct scene. At 80 mins it never overstays its welcome. Plus it is a universe set up with inventive delight. I just wanted to see more from it. More smarts, more risk taking, more comedy, and a lot less immaturity. On the plus side it did make me want to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit again!!
Verdict: A solid-gold concept and terrific puppetry cannot disguise the fact that The Happytime Murders has little in its arsenal other than tired genre tropes and puerile humour. Disappointing.