Dust to dust, fluff to fluff, man.
If you were to think that The Happytime Murders was the first movie featuring fuzzy puppets behaving badly, you'd be wrong. In 1989 Peter Jackson (that's The Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson) gave us an unholy R-rated comedy called Meet the Feebles, introducing a cast of stuffed characters ridden with drug addiction and venereal disease, several of whom got slaughtered in squelchy fashion. It was a thoroughly unpleasant and demented watch, and it makes this new muppets-gone-wrong comedy seem a bit tame in comparison. But does that make Happytime, created by Brian Henson (son of muppet impresario Jim), the better film? Not necessarily.
Its story is set in a Los Angeles, where humans and puppets uneasily co-exist, and where puppet ex-cop Phil Philips (voiced and operated by longtime muppeteer Bill Barretta) makes a living as a private investigator. When a ruthless killer starts targeting the cast of classic puppet TV show 'The Happytime Gang', Phil is drawn into the investigation. He's teamed with his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), with whom he had a major falling out over an incident that disgraced him and prevented any other puppets being hired by the LAPD. Meanwhile puppet femme fatale Sandra is calling on his services to investigate the blackmail threats she has been receiving...
Henson's film suffers from a basic and predictable problem - its dependency on gross-out puppet humour to carry the day. While there's undeniable fun to be had watching normally child-friendly characters behave like messed-up adults (ask most audience members of the Avenue Q stage show if you doubt it), it's not a sufficiently strong or original conceit to sustain laughter throughout. To keep an audience chuckling - no great surprise - you need a well-crafted and witty script that's about more than trying to shock. The set-up is in place here for something better - the film noir detective drama and buddy-cop elements could both have been used to good effect, had they been effectively mined. Instead the writing is way too baggy and uninspired to capitalise. It's not a question of having substituted crude for clever - the two can comfortably co-exist. But if the former is denied the oxygen of the latter, it'll die rapidly and begin to smell bad.
That's not to say the film didn't have its moments of salacious inspiration. I can't deny I found a first-act sex-shop puppet massacre entertaining, or that a spectacularly rude sequence culminating in creative use of silly-string had me laughing uproariously. (I'm not proud, okay?) However this is predominantly a story of waste - in terms of both the adult muppet crime-story premise and the acting/puppeteering talent. McCarthy may have salvaged Life of the Party from ignominy earlier this year, but there's nothing she can do with the uninspiring character she's given here. And any interesting social allegory surrounding Phil and his maligned fellow-fuzzies ends up being squandered by the lazy storytelling.
Good screen-writing is the bedrock of any film, never more so than in comedy. And no amount of inappropriate muppet shenanigans can compensate for its absence. I don't recommend you hunt out Meet the Feebles, but at least Jackson's movie had the courage of its nasty convictions. This one just turned out bland.
Gut Reaction: Yes, the visual humour cracked me up on more than one occasion (the part with the silly-string still makes me smile any time I picture it). But this was largely an experience of waiting for something truly amusing to happen.
Where Are the Women?: Melissa Mac, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks. They're all here, they're all proven comedians. Dear God, give them something to work with.
Ed's Verdict: 5/10. It made me laugh out loud twice, so I have to score it higher than The Spy Who Dumped Me. But this was still a missed comic opportunity, hollow and disappointing at heart. Good puppetry though.