In a world where humans and puppets live side by side, where humans are derided as “fleshies”, and puppets are pariahs, and where puppets are buried by a priest who says, “Ashes to ashes, fluff to fluff”—that’s the world of The Happytime Murders, the first-ever production from the new Henson Alternative (stylized as “ha!”) studio and distributed by STX Productions.
The film was born from a reportedly long-shelved idea kicking around the Henson Studios backrooms to make an adult-oriented puppet movie. The trailer gave us obscene amounts of hope that The Happytime Murders would be a raucous and hilarious way to close out the summer. But the trailer is the only thing this crass, unfunny, and tedious exercise has going for it. Plus, it gives Melissa McCarthy yet another opportunity to plod through the most obnoxiously stupid material she can find.
McCarthy stars as LA Detective Connie Edwards, a Los Angeles cop who once partnered with a puppet named Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), the only non-human to ever wear a badge. After accidentally killing an innocent puppet bystander in the line of duty, Phil was kicked off the force and now spends his days chain-smoking and frumping his way through life as a private dick.
When former cast members of a 90s puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gangstart getting murdered, Phil and Connie are forced to team up and find out whodunnit; Phil’s brother starred on the show, and Phil once dated Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the only non-puppet member of the cast. The investigation proceeds from one seedy locale to another, along the way attempting to find humor in everything from puppet-on-human porn, children of incest, and utter puppet depravity.
Director Brian Henson (son of Muppets founder Jim) does great work with what he’s given. The puppeteering is fun, and dammit if the felt-covered gang doesn’t almost come to life on the screen. There’s clearly some real creativity at play here, as Henson finagles the shots to make us forget the puppets are just lumps of cloth. Yes, The Happytime Murders could have indeed been memorable for all the right reasons, but the god-awful script squanders every last bit of potential the film had.
Screenwriter Todd Berger, tackling his first big-time feature, seems lost right out of the gate. I’m sure when presented with the project he was like the proverbial kid in the candy store—excited to give the puppets free rein to be as nasty and lewd as anyone could possibly imagine. But the end result is a depressing thud of groan-worthy bits that make it seem like Berger simply took the most pedestrian of detective plots and then spun a wheel of obscene situations and naughty words and then randomly stuck them into the script. But wait, there’s more! Lame jokes that are repeated ad nauseum throughout this trainwreck include how McCarthy looks like a man (she doesn’t) and how people somehow still find humor in the kindergarten-level humor of “A (jerk) says what?” “What?” “Ha ha haaaa”.
Much was made before the film’s release about how Sesame Workshop sued STX Productions over the use of “No Sesame. All Street.” on the marketing materials. After seeing The Happytime Murders, it’s easy to see why—though my bet is that they actually didn’t mind the concept of the film, at least in theory. It’s just that the finished product is so insanely stupid they were worried about having the some of the stink rub off on them.