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The Happytime Murders Movie Review

The Happytime Murders (2018) movie poster The Happytime Murders

Theatrical Release: August 24, 2018 / Running Time: 91 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Brian Henson / Writers: Todd Berger (story & screenplay); Dee Austin Robertson (story)

Cast: Melissa McCarthy (Detective Connie Edwards), Bill Barretta (Phil Philips, Junkyard, Boar), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Elizabeth Banks (Jenny), Cynthy Wu (Brittenie Marlowe), Michael McDonald (Ronovan Scargle), Mitch Silpa (Tommy), Hemky Madera (Tito), Jimmy O. Yang (Officer Delancey), Ben Falcone (Donny), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Kevin Clash (Bumblypants, Lyle), Victor Yerrid (Larry, Old Man Puppet), Drew Massey (Goofer, Vinny), Colleen Smith (Dalmatian, Cara), Ted Michaels (Sexist Thug, Ezra), Brian Henson (Crab), Donna Kimball (Roxy, Cow, Rotten Cotton Girl), Patty Guggenheim (Roxy), Alice Dinnean (Rotten Cotton Girl), Allan Trautman (Octopus, Puppet Doctor)


Puppetry is a specialized art form that has not featured in cinema to an extensive degree. Really, when we think about puppets on film, we think about the Muppets, Jim Henson's funny, colorful,
furry creations that have starred in eight theatrical releases over the past forty years. Then we maybe think about other efforts from Henson and his collaborators, like Labyrinth, Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and assorted Sesame Street productions. Maybe you'll go on to think of Team America: World Police and the Gremlins movies. But for being one of cinema's forebears, puppetry has not really been used in the medium, enduring mainly as fodder for children's television programming.

So, there is reason to be excited about The Happytime Murders, an original comic mystery that not only features puppets prominently in a way we haven't seen before but also hails from some of the few people who have made major contributions to puppets in cinema. The film is directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim and helmer of the '90s Muppets movies made in the wake of his father's death, most significantly 1992's fantastic The Muppet Christmas Carol. Henson, who also produces this film under the little-known Henson Alternative! banner, brings with him some old colleagues including Muppet veteran Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn, Swedish Chef, Rowlf) in the lead role of police detective turned private eye Phil Philips.

Philips, our narrator and protagonist, introduces us to a Los Angeles in which humans and puppets co-exist, although the latter are treated by many of the former as second-class citizens and subjected to insults, bullying, and even a poaching black market. Philips, kind of like a Philip Marlowe played by a world-weary Alan Arkin in puppet form, looks out for his kind. The 3-foot blue puppet stands up to deadly poachers and rude kids alike.

In "The Happytime Murders", puppet private eye Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) gets reunited with his old police partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to consult on a spree of Los Angeles puppet murders.

On an investigation for a new client, a blackmailed nymphomaniac named Sandra, Philips ends up at a puppet smut shop and becomes the only surviving witness to a mysterious single assailant bloodbath that leaves several puppets dead. Based on his history with the department and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Philips gets brought in to consult with the homicide department's investigation of the murder. This reunites him with his human former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Tensions between the two run high while they start to realize the porn store murder was not a random attack but part of a concerted effort to kill off members of the hit '90s television series "Happytime" right as it is about to enter syndication.

Philips, whose own brother appeared on the series, is troubled by the deadly spree and determined to unravel it, even if he has to revive a strained old partnership to do so.

Not surprisingly, the puppetry of Happytime Murders impresses. It's been nearly forty years since Kermit rode that bike and Brian Henson and the underemployed puppeteers hired here know how to make us believe furry hand-operated characters are alive, especially with the aid of basic green screen clean-up techniques. That said, no one is seeing this movie to be wowed by believable puppets. They're here to be entertained by a story and characters and on that front, veteran character actor and modestly seasoned writer Todd Berger (story & screenplay) and Dee Austin Robertson (story) disappoint thoroughly.

FBI Agent Campbell (Joel McHale) questions sultry puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies) in "The Happytime Murders."

Berger and Robertson seem to be operating on the shaky premise that people are going to be entertained by puppets who look like the ones on "Sesame Street" and the Muppets doing inappropriate things. Swearing, snorting glitter cocaine, making porn, flashing pubic hair,
and ejaculating silly string for a very long time. There were chuckles at my one-night-early critics screening at such material. They seemed like an uncomfortable defense mechanism, less genuine than the inexplicable laughs earned by the food items of Sausage Party engaging in such decidedly un-Pixar acts like getting high and having orgies.

Happytime struggles to find the right tone for its universe. It's set on being raunchy hard-R fare, playing on the contrast between the seemingly benign cloth cast and their assortment of dark vices. It's never funny or interesting and the threads of social commentary relating puppets to, I suppose, disenfranchised people of color never comes close to making any sense or point.

Failed on this fundamental level, we're left only potentially caring about the story, a whodunit noir involving cast members of an old TV series being targeted for royalty cuts. This plot is the closest we come to finding any wit here and it is moderately engaging, but much less so than it would be unfolding outside of a universe that made you cringe with characters you universally dislike. McCarthy is more endearing here playing off of foul-mouthed puppets than she was as the star of her spring comedy vehicle Life of the Party, but she and other dependable on-camera talent (including Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker of "The Office", and Joel McHale) cannot elevate the proceedings to the level of even lesser Muppet movies. Raunch and degradation are alone asked to produce laughs and without any logic or consistency to explain or bind them, the laughs do not flow. A chuckle here and there, but mostly just a pervasive feeling of unease and discomfort.

Happytime Murders deserves credit for being original and trying something different. It's kind of astonishing just to see the Henson name attached to something that the Muppets' current owners Disney wouldn't touch with a hundred-foot pole. One wishes that taking chances on something risky like this would pay off for STX Films and the various production companies that had to come together to fund this. But opening today to predominantly negative reviews, Happytime seems destined to underperform and that will only further discourage risk-taking from entertainment makers. Other than that, this over-the-top, underwhelming comedy gives us little reason to lament the commercial disappointment in its path.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Brian Henson: The Muppet Christmas Carol Muppet Treasure Island
Now in Theaters: Crazy Rich Asians The Meg BlacKkKlansman Alpha Christopher Robin
Melissa McCarthy: Life of the Party | Elizabeth Banks: The Hunger Games: 4-Movie Collection
Dinosaurs: Seasons 1 & 2 Jim Henson's Dog City: The Movie Follow That Bird Sausage Party Who Framed Roger Rabbit

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Reviewed August 24, 2018.

Text copyright 2018 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2018 STXfilms, Huayi Brothers Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, On the Day Productions, and Henson Alternative!
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.