There’s a lot of hubbub out there right now about the Anti-Muppet movie, “The Happytime Murders,” and for good reason. It’s certainly NOT a kids’ movie and it certainly IS “R” rated, although it’s for language, “drug” usage (sugar snorting) and sexual references because, let’s face it, puppets really can’t be sexually explicit, right? Tack on an racy, over-the-top trailer and a law suit from Sesame Street suing none other than Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, the director of the film, and you have yourself some free marketing and publicity, aka a public relations directors’ dream!
“The Happytime Murders” is written by Todd Berger who gave us the brilliant independent dark comedy “It’s A Disaster.” Now, Berger and Henson team up to create a story about an alternate universe where puppets and people attempt to live together and sugar is the black market drug. With a rash of puppet murders, specifically the original “Happytime Gang,” from a throw back television series, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and former partner turned Private Investigator, Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) team back up with bad blood between them to figure out who-dunnit.
The film uses narration and a tone which immediately conjures images of 1940‘s Film Noir movies like Dick Powell’s “Murder, My Sweet” complete with a slightly disheveled detective and a gorgeous woman (puppet) in need of the detective’s “services” (double entendre here). Beneath the licentious jokes, vulgar insults, and lewd scenes, there lies a few not-so-subtle messages regarding equality, discrimination, and respect for others. The story plays out like any other murder mystery, but because these are puppets, the envelope is pushed to the max regarding sexual references and the crass and offensive language uttered from a puppets lips (which Edwards is unable to read for obvious reasons) jolts you within the first 30 seconds of the film as the f-bombs start flying. At times, you laugh out loud and at others, you roll your eyes. Given the fact that our lead is a woman, in fact all three main characters are female with Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks having the most human screen time, several jokes seemed to make only me laugh. Of course, I was surrounded by a predominantly male group who just didn’t understand what an effort it is to wear heels or pull of an all white outfit!
The pace of the film is fast with only a few lags, but the attention to detail, particularly the scenery, gives the film another element of humor. As this is a G-Rated paper, I’ll omit some of the signage of places Detective Edwards and Phillips went to gather information. Suffice it to say, there was alliteration and many more double entendres. Finding humor in every scene, even ones that went to the dogs as one puppet was killed by a few adorable terriers looking for the squeaker, the film kept its focus on laying the trail of breadcrumbs to find the killer. And you actually felt like these puppets were people very early into the film as you are filled with disdain for those who treated the stuffed creatures as second class citizens and you are shocked as you witness the “murders” with their fluffy innards laying haphazardly everywhere.
There’s no argument that this is a raunchy comedy, but you know that going into it. The puppetry is amazing as it, along with the editing and camera work, makes you believe the puppets are real. That really places a difficult task on the human actors to do well, and they do. McCarthy never disappoints as she develops a friendship with Phil the puppet. Rudolph, while her character of “Bubbles” doesn’t exactly push her acting skills to new levels, seems to have fun portraying this ditzy, lovable receptionist who’s head over heels in love with Phil. Banks, no stranger to this type of comedy (“Pitch Perfect”), creates the squeaky clean teen gone bad character with ease.
“The Happytime Murders” make “Bridesmaids,” “Trainwreck,” and “The Hangover” look pretty tame, but that’s thanks to the use of puppets. There are plenty of ill-humored, sexually explicit films that lack a story, but this isn’t one of them. There’s a story with a few relevant social issues addressed as well. Is it great cinema that we will hear about during Oscar season? Absolutely not. Is it fun, embarrassingly so? Yes. It pushes the envelope and a few buttons, but that’s exactly what it promised to do in the beginning. And thanks to this film, I’ll never look at licorice the same way again.