Review: The Happytime Murders

The puppeteers from the muppets go ghetto under the Henson Alternative banner for their first foray into adult comedy with The Happytime Murders. The result is a well produced, if very low-brow, comedy thriller that excels in its world building but stumbles on delivering its noirish plot. 

Adult focused puppeteering isn’t a new thing, Team America: World Police certainly smashed that barrier with that hilariously foul offering. What is sort-of new with Brian Henson’s latest is to fuse puppeteering with a wannabe tongue-in-cheek seedy noir thriller. We’ve pseudo crossed this territory before with the live action animation/puppet cross-overs Meet the FeeblesWho Framed Roger Rabbit? and Cool World, and what The Happytime Murders brings to the genre is off the leash profanity, sex and violence.

The development of The Happytime Murders has been over 6 years in the making, we reported on it in 2012, and I ponder how the script had been altered from its original concept to what we find on screen. Back then, neither producing partners Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone were publicly attached to the film and I wonder whether their additions (and accompanying expectations) influenced the screenplay.

It’s modern day Los Angeles in an alternate universe where Humans and Puppets co-exist. It’s a world where a bitter prejudice exists between them, all except for the by-gone hit TV series The Happytime Show! which is about to be syndicated and re-released across the airwaves. In the meantime, hard-as-nails former police detective turned private eye puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) chainsmokes and wiles away his days drinking and solving puppet crimes…

When a new client Sandra White (Dorien Davies) turns up with a threatening letter that connects her to the brutal murder of a The Happtime Show! cast member, Phillips realises that he’s in for more than he bargained for. Adding to his problems comes his former human partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), whose venom for him is just as palpable… Things are gonna get rough.

Where The Happytime Murders succeeds is in how deftly it establishes the world it lives in. Within moments of its very thrift 91 minute runtime, courtesy of a noir-nodding narration, this world of grizzled prejudice is set up. The production and puppetry is exceptionally well done and points, too, must be given for building the sort of seedy plot framework that tries to be James Ellroy or Frank Miller level (though it never gets anywhere near there). It aims for the seedy underbelly of sex, pornography, drugs, violence, and, of course, profanity.

What does hold it back, though, is falling back on comedy tropes as if it is mandatory to have an adult puppet film – it must be funny. Why? It really doesn’t need it. As previously stated, I wonder if the inclusion of McCarthy and Falcone meant that the script had been changed to make it crass comedy? A puppet sex scene is the most on the nose in proceedings (it runs way too long with its ‘climax’ particularly grating) and the staple McCarthy sex trash talk is on show here.

With a story as deliciously convoluted and murky as this one, to play it straight like a Sin City or L.A. Confidential would, in this author’s opinion, make it so much more impressive. It’s an adult story. Let it be adult without ribbing on it.

The Happytime Murders is a solidly produced thriller comedy that is slightly let down by its adherence to old tropes that disservices it. Mercifully, it’s thrift, fast, and builds a world which deserves to be explored again.