At about this time two years ago, I and about everyone else in their twenties saw one of the most bonkers, hilarious, and disturbing movies in the history of animated cinema. I’m of course talking about Sausage Party, a warped, Pixar-esque, push-all-your-buttons comedy from the minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It was a dubious venture from the start, translating their brand of comedy to the computer-generated spectrum, but what we got was something that wholly embraced its wacky concept of anthropomorphic food and pushed it far past any limits one would assign to something like that. It was a divisive move, a risky one, but one that totally paid off as it replaced South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as the highest-grossing R-rated animated movie of all time. And if you’ve read any of my other reviews, you’ll know how I view August as a wildcard month for studios to tentatively release potential hits that oftentimes buck the trend of traditional filmmaking and otherwise can’t compete with the big, tentpole, surefire summer releases, even superhero movies like the first Guardians of the Galaxy and Suicide Squad being other wildly successful examples in recent memory. Enter The Happytime Murders, which seemed almost primed to do the same kind of business and get twenty-something-year-olds buzzing about it the same way they did with Sausage Party. Except, it’s not that good, unfortunately, as it instead proves the rule that sometimes these risky August ventures do not pay off whatsoever. Sure, it has a similarly great premise, taking a tried and true children’s motif in puppets and defiling it for comedy, but never really is it that funny. There are jokes aplenty, but they seldom land and make you wonder if it needed the kind of talent that marked the era of consistently solid raunchy comedies that we got from the Frat Pack from about 2005 to 2013, using The 40-Year-Old Virgin and This is the End as bookends, respectively. It may have puppet royalty Brian Henson – son of Muppet creator Jim Henson – directing the proceedings, but never does The Happytime Murders seem interested in taking full advantage of its universe by fleshing it out in a way that is either dynamic or humorous.
In The Happytime Murders, former and disgraced puppet LAPD cop-turned-private investigator Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) follows a lead on a blackmailing case given to him by the voluptuous puppet Sandra White (Dorien Davies). This leads to him witnessing the murder of several puppets, one of whom was a cast member on the hit 90s puppet sitcom “The Happytime Gang.” After Phil’s brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) – also a cast member – is similarly whacked, Phil takes it upon himself to solve these string of murders before everyone winds up dead. Except to do so, he’ll have to team up with his old human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who has been assigned to the case. Together, Phil and Connie must get through their differences and sordid past if they’re to bring these grisly slayings to an end.
Minus the use of the word “puppet,” based on that synopsis, one wouldn’t really know this was anything other than your standard police procedural film, likely in line with a neo-noir approach. And I think that’s the point, that it’s latching itself onto these familiar paradigms crime films often employ so that way its transgression of those paradigms is more potent. And I get that, but only to a point. Here, part of the guilty fun the movie wants you to have is reveling in the whodunit nature of the case, but when the story beats are so perfunctory and conventional, any supposed sense of mystery or intrigue is ultimately lost. Beat for beat, it’s basically the plot of Watchmen, but instead of superheroes offing superheroes it’s puppets offing puppets, and without any of the thematic depth one would hope for from such a subversive satire. Ideally, the puppet aspect of it would shake up the formula, but it really, really doesn’t, and that’s one of the most disappointing things about the movie. It’s basic.
Largely, however, the appeal here is the puppet comedy, in so far that the formulaic elements are enlivened by the presence of our felted friends. Yet, that’s about all the comedic mileage The Happytime Murders gets out of its wicked premise. Granted, if the prospect of half the cast being puppets in this otherwise straightforward crime-mystery film doesn’t wear on you whatsoever, and likely won’t for an hour and a half, then this may be the movie for you. Otherwise, it’s gonna get old real quick. Sure, the jokes are there, like when the puppet rabbits show up for a scene they’re obviously going to make a lewd rabbit joke that aims to hit you right in the childhood, but never does any of it really land. Seriously, I found myself snickering for about half a second so often, and yet never really belting out in full on laughter. Which is a serious problem for a film like this, because when it sets the bar for itself so high, it’s really gotta hit it or else it’ll underwhelm. Even with the likes of Melissa McCarthy leading the human cast, hardly any of it feels novel, especially when they’re giving her the same joke to make over and over. I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to this one, because the potential is clearly there, but it would seem all of the best bits were included in the advertisements.
Probably the greatest sin against this missed opportunity is that it’s just not that creative. You’d think those involved would jump at the chance to weave an entire untapped world of human-puppet relations, thereby elevating the humor and the narrative, but The Happytime Murders is instead fairly content with sticking to low-brow comedy and genre formula. I mean, yes, Sausage Party was incredibly crass, but it was also subversive and imaginative, creating a whole mythos behind the hidden world of the supermarket and using that as a springboard for comedy. Here, The Happytime Murders is just plain crass and lethargic. Essentially, the only way the integration of puppets has any influence on the American landscape is that they’re viewed as second-class citizens. That’s it. And when I say that’s it, that is it. Yes, the big, dumb humans make plenty of cracks leveled at the little, fuzzy guys, but never does the movie go any further with it. For the sake of argument, I won’t go so far as to say it’s not “social commentary,” but if it technically is, it’s so two-dimensional and nominal that I could get more nuance on the matter of systemic racism on an episode of Clarissa Explains it All.
At it’s worst, The Happytime Murders is at least humorous, largely in thanks to its wicked premise. I don’t know if the filmmaking team just weren’t aware they had a potential gem on their hands, but it is somewhat baffling to see someone screw up what is essentially fishing with dynamite. Still, if you see it, don’t let it disparage the puppet community’s good name for you. The Muppets have had plenty of success on the big screen this decade, and there’s a pretty solid single season of the TV show that ABC would be wise to bring back. For now, if you have a penchant for adult-themed puppet fare, seek out Avenue Q.
Final Score: 4/10