Forget it Jake… it’s terrible.
In a film landscape where CGI is king (and has been for decades), it’s almost admirable to see Brian Henson, son of legendary Muppets creator Jim, do everything he can to make the case for practical effects through the puppets in this year’s The Happytime Murders. The end credits take the time to show as many of the film’s puppeteers as they can, and it reminded me of a similar light shone on stop motion animators after Kubo and the Two Strings in 2016. It’s unfortunate then that the Happytime Murders not only fails to live up to even the level of the Jim Henson Company’s straight-to-DVD work, but may be the worst thing I’ve seen this year.
In making a film for adults, Henson and his screenwriter Todd Berger (scribe for the upcoming Where’s Waldo? film in production) have opened themselves to adult judgment, and they are simply not up to the task. We follow puppet ex-cop Phil Phillips, played by veteran puppeteer Bill Barretta, as he tracks down a serial killer, picking off the washed-up cast of a TGIF sitcom called The Happytime Gang, including his brother (Victor Yerrid) and his former lover, played inexplicably by Elizabeth Banks. Melissa McCarthy plays Phil’s former partner, who now hates him for a shooting gone bad, and Maya Rudolph is the secretary at his small private detective firm. This one’s just a mess. The plotting is inelegant and predictable. The acting is stiff. The humor is juvenile. The world-building is thoughtless. While I thought of Kubo during the end credits, I spent most of the film thinking about Bright, last years’ high fantasy train wreck, courtesy of the Netflix trash machine.
I was baffled by the film’s core conceit within minutes. The world operates on a two-class system: humans and puppets. The former discriminate against the latter with cartoonish arrogance, and with the exception of Phil, the puppets seem to take it without so much as a complaint. A few months ago, I reviewed Avenue Q, and complained about the show’s lack of forethought in planning the metaphor of puppets as a race. Compared to Happytime Murders, Avenue Q looks absolutely meticulous.
In the film, puppets are obviously supposed to stand-in for the types of racial discrimination suffered by black people in the twentieth century. This is epitomized by their stereotype of singing and dancing, the ghetto codings that many of the puppets have, the bleaching of skin to appear more like the in-group, and even the facial features of many of the puppets. Moving past the fact that this is incredibly offensive in its own right, the metaphor goes mainly unexplained and that leaves room for a lot of disturbing implications.
Puppets are pushed around because they are physically weaker than humans: smaller, softer, afraid of dogs (Given the metaphor, there is a disturbing scene of a dog attack in the first act). This makes biological determinism the underpinning for their underclass status. Bright took a similar tact, making orcs discriminated against for something their ancestors were actually culpable for. By placing the onus on the discriminated to prove their strength or worthiness, filmmakers imply that proof was required in the first place, which is obviously ludicrous and harmful. Unfortunately, though, one doesn’t need to do a close reading of the puppet metaphor to find fault with Happytime.
This movie is terrible on its own merits. The film reeks of the type of lazy noir parody that was old hat a decade and a half ago. The Chinatown, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity puree has been done to death, and it’s delivered via some of the worst voice-overs I’ve ever seen. This film was in production for over a decade, but it feels like they barely got enough footage to stitch together the hour and a half they put onscreen. Most television shows do a better private dick parody, and they have the decency to wrap it up in a third the time.
Where this film may have once been groundbreaking is in its raunchiness, but as I said, its long development cycle means that Avenue Q had time to become a national phenomenon and then fade into the background of the collective unconscious before Happytime even had a release date. This wouldn’t be so bad if this film had literally anything funny to say. This script is cribbing Wayne’s World, and milking the joke for even longer than they would ever dare.
Melissa McCarthy was also an awful choice for this. Besides the fact that most of her filmography is, at best, forgettable, she’s an improviser working with puppeteers. She’s adlibbing, while their movements had to be planned out months, if not years, in advance. It mixes like oil and water. The result is a lot of things that look like McCarthy’s seventh take, after she ran out of funny things to say, but where the puppet movements looked just right. There’s plenty of ADR, but, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, it really could have used a few more days of her riffing in the booth.
Everyone else is turning in a D-grade performance, Rudolph, McHale, and especially The Office’s Leslie David Baker all come off terribly. The puppeteers acting and theirs don’t really mix at all. I think there’s a reason that we haven’t seen humanoid puppets in a lot of recent movies: acting alongside them is a challenge that most don’t feel the need to rise to.
If it’s not clear already, don’t watch this movie. You could watch The Venture Bros. episode “Everybody Comes to Hank’s”. You could watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang or The Nice Guys. You could watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? You should watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? This movie certainly rips it off enough that you aren’t missing anything. There’s no reason to do a private detective parody movie unless you have something to say. It seems as if all Happytime Murders has to say is “FUCK!” at the top of its lungs until you tell it to stop. Luckily, the way things are going, it won’t have a venue in which to misbehave much longer.