The Happytime Murders is a film that I wanted to like. It had a fun premise of humans and puppets having to work together to solve the murders of the cast of the “The Happytime Gang” TV show. It promised to be violent, lewd and crude. Brian Henson (director of one of my favourite Christmas films, The Muppet Christmas Carol and son of Muppets creator Jim Henson) was going to direct the film and Melissa McCarthy was going to star. What could possibly go wrong? I soon found out that the answer to that question was almost everything. Although the film pays homage to film noirs of the past, I found myself over the course of an hour and a half watching the film as if I were forcibly strapped to a chair, put in a catatonic state and unable to do anything about it. Almost every joke falls flat, and if a joke does work, they kill it by repeating it a few moments later. Here is a brief plot synopsis:
Disgraced former police detective and now private eye Phil Phillips (the alliteration reminded me of Sam Spade) is on his way to his office. He is a puppet and in voiceover we learn that humans and puppets co-exist in society, but puppets are treated as second class citizens. As Phil enters his office, his secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) informs him that a lady is waiting for him in his office. She is a puppet femme fatale named Sandra and she hires Phil to find out who is blackmailing her. Phil accepts the case and makes his way to a puppet porno shop to follow up on a hunch he has about the letter Sandra has received. Phil goes into the back room to look at some documents and when he comes out, he discovers that everyone in the puppet porno shop has been murdered, including a member of “The Happytime Gang”. The LAPD arrive on the scene, including Phil’s former partner Detective Connie Edwards. We soon find out that they have a history as Phil was the first and last puppet to become a police officer and was thrown off the force when Edwards testified that a puppet wouldn’t shoot another puppet after a botched takedown. A law was then put in place that banned puppets from being police officers. Can Phil redeem himself? Can Phil and Edwards work out their differences and co-exist? Can they solve the murders? I’m sure that you can figure out the answers to these questions. Here are my thoughts on the film.
Maya Rudolph gives the only performance that I was interested in. Her secretary character fit in to the film noir tropes of being a long suffering woman who has a crush on the puppet that she works for, but also added something to the character as she was skilled and resourceful enough to be doing a lot of the detective work herself. The only chemistry that worked in the film was her relationship with puppet Phil Phillips, but they don’t get a lot of screen time together, so you just enjoy the moments that they have when they happen. As much as I liked Maya Rudolph’s performance in the film, I cannot say that it is reason enough to go and see The Happytime Murders.
The biggest problem is the script, which was written by Todd Berger. It is dull, flat and uninspired, which is a lethal combination. I really don’t know many films that can overcome that problem and make for an enjoyable viewing experience. The story fizzles, because you are not interested in the relationship between the two main characters, you don’t care about any members of “The Happytime Gang”, as they get so little screen time before they are killed off, that you don’t feel any empathy for them. The villain gets so little screen time, that you don’t really care if the individual is caught. I also found that there is a fine line between paying homage to a genre and flat out stealing sequences and jokes from a film. The Happytime Murders falls into the latter category as it steals a sequence from Basic Instinct (I’m sure you can guess which one) and rips off a joke from Wayne’s World (which to be fair, the joke was around before that film came out, but I still associate the joke with Wayne’s World). The writing for this film should have been inspired and maybe I had my hopes set too high as I’m a fan of the musical Avenue Q, which successfully created a world where humans and puppets co-existed. Unfortunately, the script for The Happytime Murders relied too heavily on gross-out jokes and not much else. Although I think most people who know the film noir genre can figure out who the killer is, the reveal of why makes no sense whatsoever as the audience is not given enough clues to go on. I always believe that when a reveal happens, it has to make sense (The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense are prime examples in that when you think about the twist in those films, in your mind when you play back the film in your head, it makes sense and you can accept it). I just couldn’t accept the logic in The Happytime Murders which made for a sour outcome.
With the exception of Maya Rudolph, none of the other actors are given much to work with. Melissa McCarthy’s character is angry throughout, although she has a massive addiction to sugar (we do find out why later in the film). It’s very one-note and McCarthy deserves a lot better to work with. Elizabeth Banks’ character is really just a cameo appearance and Joel McHale plays a hard nose F.B.I. agent who causes interference for the main characters. I am a fan of all three of these actors and while watching the film, I kept asking myself why they all signed on to be in this film, because their characters are not given much to do and the jokes they are given are just not that funny. They all deserve much better.
The film is also flat visually. One of the problems with puppets being on camera is that they always look clunky when they are fully shown from head-to-toe on screen, so most of the time you get close up or mid-range shots of the characters to avoid this. The Happytime Murders does just that, but I wish they had done more visually. An idea might be to acknowledge how clunky they look in full view, and have camera put on their legs during an action sequence, so they could use slo-mo and then speed up the action (ala Zach Snyder) to make it a little more visually exciting. Even the action sequences are short and uninspired as although it sounds funny to blow the head off of a puppet with a shotgun and watch the fluff fly everywhere, it really is not that visually stimulating. Part of me wished that they would have done a one-take sequence just to liven things up or even show “The Happytime Gang” doing a musical number from back in the day, when their show was on the air. Even doing a psychedelic sequence when Detective Edwards snorts lines of sugar would have been nice, but sadly, The Happytime Murders decided to play it safe and there was no visual flair to the film.
The Happytime Murders was one of the worst experiences I had watching a film this year. It was not funny, it was uninspired and it was boring. Even though the running time was only 1h 31m, I wanted the film to end after about 30 minutes, because I did not care about the story being told. Sadly, I think The Happytime Murders will kill any future movies from being released into theatres that want to be “R” rated and have humans and puppets co-exist. The film was probably a lot of fun to write and even film (especially the sequence in the office between puppets Phil and Sandra), but it just didn’t come across that way when watching it. I cannot recommend The Happytime Murders to anyone and I would strongly avoid seeing it. I give this film .5 out of 4 stars.
Mia Sara of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame got a thank you mention in the credits, but I couldn’t figure out why. When I got home, I found out that she is married to director Brian Henson. It’s a random fact that I thought I would share.