The Happytime Murders movie review: schlock puppets

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The Happytime Murders red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Ugly, sordid, and proud of it, with less than no justification. “Meet the Feebles meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit” conveys a far greater sense of dignity, cohesion, and purpose than this witless movie deserves.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

It’s not often that the worst movie of the year — so far, but this will be hard to beat — announces itself with such ugly, sordid panache, as if it were proud to claim the label. Maybe it is! Maybe director Brian Henson, who doesn’t appear to have a single directing credit that isn’t the result of nepotism, isn’t ashamed of himself, having ridden the coattails of his enormously talented father, the Muppets’ Jim Henson, straight into this disastrous fuck-you to his legacy. But he should be ashamed.

It’s not even that the Muppets — whom the younger Henson shepherded through The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island — are all about kindness, civility, and friendship in the glorious context of madcap nonsense, and The Happytime Murders… isn’t. There’s not automatically anything wrong or insulting to the Muppets’ memory in the telling a story about humans and puppets coexisting — as they also do, recall, throughout the Muppets universe — in a grittier, crueler, “realer” world. But make it mean something, for the love of Gonzo. Make it feel like it expands upon and deepens the puppets+people universe, instead of just pissing on it because you can.

An alcoholic felt PI confronts a perverted stuffed bunny in a puppet porno shop. This movie is all class.
An alcoholic felt PI confronts a perverted stuffed bunny in a puppet porno shop. This movie is all class.

In the fantasy Los Angeles of Happytime, puppets are real, and the onetime puppet cast members of 1990s TV show The Happytime Gang are being murdered in gruesome ways, possibly connected to a new syndication deal for the old program. Human cop Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy: Life of the Party, The Boss) reluctantly teams up with her former partner turned PI Phil Philips (the voice of Bill Barretta [Muppets Most Wanted, The Muppets] paired with a practical puppet) to solve the case; he was once the LAPD’s first “felt” cop, but he was forced off the job after he was accused of deliberately missing when taking a shot at a puppet suspect. You know how “those people” are, always looking out for each other at the expense of decent citizens. (We shall return to this theme.)

Comparisons have been offered between Happytime and 1989’s Meet the Feebles, from a pre–Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson, a justifiable flop at the time though it now enjoys cult status, merely because Feebles also features puppets behaving very badly, in very vulgar ways. But Happytime is much more reasonably likened to one of the best and most popular films of the previous year: Who Framed Roger Rabbit… and the lazy, shoddy Happytime, which echoes it in ways that almost border on the actionable, is less than a pile of puppet fluff next to it.

If you imagine that this scene is going to descend into a witless imitation of Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation in Basic Instinct, you are not wrong.
If you imagine that this scene is going to descend into a witless imitation of Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation in Basic Instinct, you are not wrong.

The noirish vibe is tedious and sexist: Phil has a new femme-fatale puppet client (the voice of Dorien Davies), and a ridiculously devoted human secretary (Maya Rudolph: The Angry Birds Movie, Sisters), who is of course secretly madly in love with washed-up alcoholic Phil. The absolute mess of a mystery is banal, with the ultimate culprit behaving in a way that makes no sense at all. The dialogue is along the lines of “I was a cop — and a damn good one” yet with no inkling from screenwriters Todd Berge and Dee Austin Robertson that they even imagine they are sending up old noir films. They’re just parroting them and thinking that’s funny or even mildly interesting merely because it’s puppets enacting it. They’re wrong.

So far, so small, so unoriginal, and so risible. But this is also a hugely offensive movie. And not because puppets are having sex or snorting sugar — it’s like cocaine to felt — or making pornos for humans (and puppets) who like that sort of thing. Crude barely begins to cover the atmosphere of Happytime, but please: a puppet jizzing all over the walls and ceiling is precisely the sort of oh-so predictable manchild grossout crap that would be surprising only if it weren’t present. (Male filmmakers: Really? Are you genuinely this proud of your bodily fluids? Grow up.) There’s also the monotonous misogyny of getting Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 3, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) — as the only human cast member of Gang — into stripper gear for the inevitable scene set in a strip club, and the running “humorous” motif in which McCarthy is constantly being mistaken for a man. (Male filmmakers: You have made yourselves abundantly clear through thousands of movies. Women can either be too sexy, or not sexy enough. Message long since received.) The insult of these things is merely the air we breath at the movies all the damn time.

There isn’t a puppet character here who isn’t a caricature of a useless lowlife. In a movie pleading for felt dignity.
There isn’t a puppet character here who isn’t a caricature of a useless lowlife. In a movie pleading for felt dignity.

No, where The Happytime Murders is offensive is where it thinks it’s a parable about racism, when in fact it is itself racist as fuck. Puppets in this universe are the objects of much derision and bigotry: good enough to entertain humans, but sneered at, even beaten up with impugnity by human children in the streets. But if we’re meant to feel sorry for puppets and bad about their treatment at the hands of humans, maybe even pause for reflection on how this dynamic might translate into our real world, they why the hell is there not a single puppet character here who isn’t a nasty, useless walking personal disaster? Why are there no sweet puppets or funny puppets or nice puppets? Why is the murder of puppets treated by the movie as a source of amusement? In one scene, a puppet is ripped apart by dogs, who see the puppet as a chew toy to be devoured… and it’s played for laughs. Does Brian Henson not know that people — actual human beings — have had dogs set upon them by other people who disapproved of the color of their skin, or their religion, in order to hurt and kill them? The absolute, mind-boggling tone-deafness of this movie about the very thing it thinks it is about is astonishing, and horrific. It’s the furthest thing from funny imaginable.



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althea
althea
Wed, Aug 29, 2018 12:59am

I don’t know if Brian himself was the originating force behind the recent unlamented Muppets primetime show – and I’m not bothering to look it up – but it would appear that he – or whoever – is fixed on degrading the Muppets. That’s how it sounds to me. Just as you say, they are beloved worldwide, all of them sweet and kind and fair, except for a grump here and there.What a rotten thing to do. I suppose the filmmakers protest that they’re not actually calling them Muppets?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  althea
Wed, Aug 29, 2018 11:51am

The word “Muppet” is not used here, and no one will mistake this for anything exactly Muppet-y. It’s just the idea that B. Henson is using whatever power he has, which he has solely because of his father’s genius, that is the absolute antithesis of what the Muppets stand for.

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  althea
Wed, Aug 29, 2018 11:56am

This movie just makes me sad, because I have so much affection for Brian Henson as a puppeteer and as a spokesperson for the Muppets. He was spectacular as a performer in two of my all-time favorite movies and TV shows, Labyrinth and The Storyteller. I also enjoyed this show when I saw it in New York:

https://www.newsfromme.com/2017/03/12/live-nude-puppets/

It’s a shame that he wasn’t able to translate that energy to the movie. As MaryAnn’s review suggests, his skills may be better applied in other areas.

An odd question for MaryAnn: Did this movie remind you of Bright? The themes (and perhaps the quality) sound very similar.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 2:44pm

It *did* remind me of *Bright*! Though only in how it bungles the racism motif. (Here’s my review, for those who haven’t read it: https://www.flickfilosopher.com/2017/12/bright-movie-review-every-little-thing-opposite-magic.html )

I tried to find a way to mention this above, but I just couldn’t make it work.

It’s a shame that he wasn’t able to translate that energy to the movie.

Oh, there’s “energy” in this movie. Like a nuke has “energy.”

MarkyD
Wed, Aug 29, 2018 2:19pm

This just looked so awful right from the beginning.

Plus, I really do not like Melissa McCarthy as an actress. I don’t find her schtick funny at all. She seems to play the same character in very movie. Obnoxious.

Now, this doesn’t mean she’s not capable of doing better. She just needs to be given something better to work with. Better writing, and more variance.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  MarkyD
Wed, Aug 29, 2018 2:27pm

She just needs to be given something better to work with.

Watch Gilmore Girls.

MarkyD
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 3:40pm

Didn’t know she was in that. Never saw that show, and most likely never will. Glad to hear she has good parts in her, though.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  MarkyD
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 4:41pm

Never saw that show, and most likely never will.

Why not?

MarkyD
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 7:14pm

Well, I am very particular about what TV shows I watch. I only watch one at a time, a few nights a week. I already have a long list of shows I want to watch, so I’m not eager to add to the pile.

Plus, as much as I’ve always heard good things about this series, it’s just not as appealing to me as many other shows.

Nowadays I’m big into sci-fi, mystery/thrillers, and docs of all sorts.

MPC
MPC
reply to  MarkyD
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 1:34pm

“Can You Forgive Me” looks promising.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  MPC
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 1:53pm
MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 2:46pm

I’m really looking forward to this one!

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 5:07am

It’s Brian Henson’s revenge for the success of Avenue Q. No, wait. That would be giving him too much credit…

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 5:53am

he was once the LAPD’s first “felt” cop, but he was forced off the job after he was accused of deliberately missing when taking a shot at a puppet suspect. You know how “those people” are, always looking out for each other at the expense of decent citizens.

Wait, isn’t that basically the same premise as “Bright”? Was this also written by Douchebro Landis?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Dr. Rocketscience
Thu, Aug 30, 2018 2:50pm

There are some similarities…

cinderkeys
Tue, Sep 04, 2018 7:34am

This is why I never saw _Meet the Feebles_, which got some okay word of mouth. Cute puppets who look like they belong on children’s television and who also do R-rated things? Could be hilarious for about five minutes. Properly executed, it’d make a good SNL sketch. There’s no way anybody can make it funny for an hour and a half.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  cinderkeys
Tue, Sep 04, 2018 1:25pm

Properly executed, “cute puppets doing R-rated things” could make for a full-length, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. :-)

cinderkeys
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Sep 04, 2018 7:55pm

I’ve watched clips from Avenue Q and would love to see the whole thing. It’s puppets dealing with adult situations that Sesame Street never prepared them for rather than puppets simply being vulgar … yes?

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  cinderkeys
Tue, Sep 04, 2018 8:58pm

Yes. It’s from more than a decade ago, so some of its sexual/racial politics may not be up to speed, but I remember it being really funny. And you get half-off tickets at the TKTS booth in NYC, so next time you’re in town… :-)

The key, of course, is that there’s actually a good STORY there. Looks like this movie doesn’t.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 1:42am

It’s from more than a decade ago, so some of its sexual/racial politics may not be up to speed…

“More than a decade ago” wasn’t exactly the stone age. It might not seem as edgy today as it used to be but I have a hard time believing that it’s that dated.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 2:06am

Social standards change FAST, Tonio. I recently watched some episodes of Sports Night and found myself cringing at a lot of the sexual politics (and outright workplace harassment, aka “romance”) in it.

It’s been years since I’ve seen Avenue Q so I can’t say with certainty whether or how it’s dated. I suspect I might have different feelings about the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (or, as the show’s lone Asian character sings, “Evelyone’s a rittle bit lacist”) today.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  Bluejay
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 6:10pm

Yes, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is a bit problematic but then I wasn’t all that fond of it back in the day either. I even wrote a post on my blog saying as much.

Then again I still love West Side Story even though the language in that musical was already horribly dated by the time I first saw it.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 6:48pm

No one said you couldn’t enjoy something even if it’s dated. :-)

Danielm80
Danielm80
reply to  Tonio Kruger
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 5:22am

There are shows currently in production that feel more than a decade out of date. I just saw a TV commercial in which a guy asks a dog to fetch him a bare naked lady.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  cinderkeys
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 12:58pm

Oh, and for anyone in/near NYC looking for affordable theater, Avenue Q and a bunch of other off-Broadway shows are part of the yearly “20@20” initiative going on right now — come to the theater 20 minutes before showtime and get $20 tix. Some real treasures here.

http://20at20.com/shows/

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Wed, Sep 05, 2018 6:19pm

If you imagine that this scene is going to descend into a witless imitation of Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation in Basic Instinct, you are not wrong.

Has there ever been a witty imitation of Sharon Stone’s infamous interrogation in Basic Instinct?

But, seriously, folks.

Basic Instinct is over a quarter-century old and we’re still seeing scenes inspired by it? Surely it wasn’t that good.