Chances are if you have watched the trailer for The Happytime Murders – which does show some of the biggest shocks – you know what to expect. From director Brian Henson, this is the first feature to come from Ha! (Henson Alternative), a branch of the Jim Henson Company specialising in adult content and it is hard to imagine a more in your face start. The film has been chastised with scathing reviews, some calling it the worst film this year (it isn’t) or this summer (it isn’t that either) and while the film is not a rib-bustingly bawdy and masterful spin on the Who Framed Roger Rabbit-esque concept of man living among cartoon characters (only here we replace cartoons with puppets), there is still dirty and crude fun to be had with the film’s puppet-filled ridiculousness.
In development for years, the film has gone from noirish detective yarn (as some early artwork suggested) to rude riotous comedy but the idea still remains effective. Technically we have seen this kind of thing before (see early Peter Jackson film Meet The Feebles and ABC’s polarising 2015 series The Muppets, which dabbled in mature gags) but not quite on as big a scale. Todd Berger’s script may not always be bang on but with some gross out porn shop puppetry, an intriguing murder plot, some quickfire profane banter and some eye-catchingly lewd sight gags, this film has its share of outrageous moments and it helps compensate for some misfiring jokes and the narrative untidiness.
The world here is genuinely well constructed, with the grit and vulgarity proudly on display, creating an array of imagery and a cast of puppets who delight in tarnishing the purities of your childhood…Fraggle Rock it ain’t! This backdrop though gives credence to the film’s embraced grunginess and every corner of this world onscreen feels desperate, seedy and filthy, much like most of the script and its characters.
To that point, the majority of the human characters are pretty cookie cutter of any other detective show/film but Maya Rudolph stands out as the positive minded secretary Bubbles and Melissa McCarthy still manages to shine in the human lead and is very game, as she puts herself through the ringer (be it ingesting puppet drugs or knocking out libidinous lumps of cotton), in fact as Detective Connie she even gets a decent backstory alongside her onscreen puppet lead Phil. No doubt Bill Baretta is the star of the show though, as he voices the antiheroic foul-mouthed former cop turned private investigator Phil Phillips and his character is a proper piss take of generations of cinematic private eyes. For that matter, all the plethora of supporting puppets bare more distinct characterisation than their human colleagues but considering the approach that is hardly surprising.
Folks have seemingly hated the film for what it is, some saying Jim Henson will be turning in his grave but Henson always sought for puppetry to be accepted in mature films and while this is probably a far cry from what he envisioned The Happytime Murders is what is, take it or leave it. Frankly, I was not expecting it to go as far as it could with its ideas and it didn’t (for instance the interesting presentation of real world racism via onscreen puppet prejudice). Like Paul Feig’s The Heat by way of Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, this is instead played far more broadly for gross out laughs and dirty minded fun than anything else and despite some gags clunking, it accomplishes its goal more than not, as the filmmakers have fashioned a big gross world for the movie’s murderous, dubious and promiscuous characters to run amok in.
The Happytime Murders may not be suitable for all tastes (or ages) but, like Meet The Feebles (on a bigger budget), it feels like it could become a cult hit somewhere down the line.