The Happytime Murders was making news before it even hit theaters after Disney sued the creators for potentially causing marketplace confusion among consumers. Directed by Brian Henson – the son of legendary puppeteer and the creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson – The Happytime Murders is set in a world where humans and Muppet-like puppets are both living and co-existing. And it’s not for kids. After being slapped with a hard R rating and dropping a provocative trailer that got people talking, The Happytime Murders sparked the ire of Disney, who bought the Muppets many years ago. The film’s use of the tag line “No Sesame. All Street.” was the primary sticking point, as Disney didn’t want audiences mistakenly assuming the film was associated with the Sesame Street brand, which falls under the Muppet umbrella and is thereby also owned by Disney.
The judge knocked that idea down and ruled in favor of the film’s producers, and it’s easy to understand why, as one would have to be pretty thick to actually believe The Happytime Murders is a production of the Children’s Television Workshop. Putting aside the fact that exactly none of the Muppets or “Sesame Street” characters are present in the film’s marketing (or the film, itself), in what reality would this film fit into that universe? Has “Sesame Street” moving to HBO really thrown everyone for that big of a loop?
In the film, itself, a puppet/former detective is sucked into an investigation when the cast of an old children’s puppet show is being murdered, one-by-one. Along the way, he finds himself paired up with his old partner (Melissa McCarthy) in an effort to track down the culprit, forcing him to face his past and try to come to terms with his old mistakes.
Somewhat surprisingly, the story works. And by that, I mean, it’s cohesive and logical – or at least as logical as it could be in this world. Motivations make sense and the characters behave according to their pasts and their experiences. On the other hand, the script is extremely predictable (I made a guess as to who the killer was within the first ten minutes of the film, if not less, and I was right) and not particularly clever. As far as murder mysteries go, the film is not exactly the epitome of compelling storytelling techniques. But that aspect of it is at least competent, so I’ll give it that much.
It’s obvious that the film tries to at least put forth the illusion that it’s making some sort of statement or attempting a deeper social commentary, but the pieces of it never come together. The puppets are discriminated against but a direct correlation between their struggles and the current culture fails to materialize, instead coming across as a generic, broadly-stroked “just don’t be a bigot” moral without offering up any variation of unique perspectives or twists. It’s so lazy and ineffective that it would have been better off having been left out entirely.
The film is primarily attempting to be a comedy, however, not a topical crime drama. Even the most “serious” moments are slightly over-the-top and melodramatic, working hard to ensure that audiences never take the content too seriously. Comedy of this sort can be tricky. There are essentially two comedic approaches that can lead to success for a film of this sort: 1) humor that would work independently of the inclusion of puppets and 2) humor that only works because of the inclusion of puppets. If a gag gets laughs and would get a laugh if any given puppet was replaced with a human, then that’s a win. Still, if half of the cast is to consist of puppets, they can’t be entirely ignored, so there also needs to be humor that couldn’t exist, at all, if a human took the puppet’s place.
The film contains examples of both of these types of content-specific humor and it often lands. But, if I were to approximate, I would say that this makes up only about a third of the comedy in the movie. The rest is what I feared: unimaginative “humor” that is supposed to be funny simply because a puppet is involved. Puppets are cursing. Puppets are smoking. Puppets are drinking. Puppets are fornicating. Puppets are fighting. Puppets are killing. And the idea is that it’s funny just because it involves a puppet. This clearly fits into neither of the two aforementioned categories of humor and requires no wit, intelligence, or imagination, whatsoever. The film is overly reliant on this paint-by-numbers approach to outside-the-box comedy and it severely damages the finished product as a whole.
However, I can’t get through this review without acknowledging how fantastic the puppet work truly is. Brian Henson is still Brian Henson and he can do puppets. The end credits include some behind-the-scenes footage of the puppeteers and gives insight into the technology involved in bringing these characters to full-bodied life on the big screen and the crew and puppeteers deserve their due for pulling it off. They make it look easy, but it certainly wasn’t.
Also benefiting the film is the live-action cast of McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, and Leslie David Baker. Their very presence lends some credence and credibility to the picture and allows the viewer to relax just a bit and not quite feel so much as if they’re watching something they shouldn’t be watching. Still, that feeling persists to some degree throughout the entire movie and the box office returns are supporting that notion.
I neither loved nor hated the film (it’s at least moderately entertaining all the way through and even if one shakes their head at the raunchy lengths that the filmmakers will go to in order to elicit a reaction, the movie never gets so bad that one can legitimately laugh at it instead of with it), but I feel as if it will be the Cool World of this generation. Even those who love it will be too ashamed to say so and will therefore be relegated to professing their admiration in hushed tones to either their closest confidants or the most mysterious of strangers, sure to never be encountered again. Painfully mediocre, for better or for worse, The Happytime Murders will likely only persist in the public consciousness as a Trivial Pursuit question about the Disney lawsuit and/or a footnote in the careers of McCarthy and Banks.
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