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Non-Review Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders may be the worst film of the year.

There are any number of issues with The Happytime Murders. The film is only ninety one minutes long, but feels interminable. The film has no idea what it is about in any meaningful sense, beyond assembling a number of familiar tropes in a very familiar way. Beyond that, the film seems to believe that rehashing familiar clichés is amusing of itself, some sort of self-aware postmodern ironic anti-comedy where the reference to the thing is enough of itself to become a joke.

It really blows.

A larger problem is that the film assumes that seeing puppets do “adult” things has greater novelty than it does. The Happytime Murders is a film that is consciously powered by the juvenile thrill of watching beloved children’s characters caught in inappropriate situations – swearing at one another, smoking cigarettes, engaging in vigorous sexual activity. This glosses over the fact that there are plenty of other media that has already covered this ground. The Happytime Murders runs on a joke that has already been repeated and rehashed several times.

However, all of these concerns distract from the biggest issue with The Happytime Murders. It is just not funny.

The boy in blue.

The Happytime Murders is a film that can be almost entirely summarised by very broad surface-level comparisons to other more popular or successful films. The movie is aware of this fact. It is branded as “Henson Alternative” and directed by Brian Henson, playing up its connections to the iconic muppet brand. The film survived a legal challenge to its provocative tagline, “No Sesame. All Street.” The film is counting on luring audience members in on nothing more than the image of a Fozie stand-in wearing some gimp chains.

Naturally, this is not enough to build a movie of itself. Twenty-first century audiences are used to watching nominally childish figures reworked in adult situations. Indeed, there is a solid argument to be made that the Muppets themselves crossed that line on their debut. There was also something anarchic and subversive about Jim Henson’s puppet performers. One need only look at his surprisingly bleak coffee commercials, or the fact that one of the two pilots for The Muppet Show was actually titled Sex and Violence.

It won’t even satisfy the most rabbit fans.

Of course, The Happytime Murders goes further than The Muppet Show ever did,  but it is also worth conceding that the film over-emphasises the taboo thrill associated with watching these primary colour characters getting trapped in situations that involve bodily fluids and shot guns; it is a much smaller steps to watch these sorts of characters make that transition than it would be to watch some more jealously-guarded intellectual property getting skewered. (Team America: World Police took aim at Gerry Anderson’s more wholesome supermarionation.)

However, even if the audience did believe that the Muppets were sacred and if this sort of narrative were capable of being scandalous, there is a recurring sense that The Happytime Murders is late to the party. Avenue Q already featured Muppet-esque performers grappling with everything from porn to racism. When The Happytime Murders attempts a puppet-driven sex scene, it’s not just competing against Team America: World Police as a comedy, it’s competing against Anomalisa in terms of making the audience uncomfortable.

Taking it’s licks.

However, the most obvious influence on The Happytime Murders is much older than any of these examples. The Happytime Murders arguably owes more to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than it does to any of the aforemented puppet-related films. Both The Happytime Murders and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? offer to take audiences “behind the scenes” into a world where beloved children’s entertainment figures live much more gritty and grounded lives, adopting the tone of sun-drenched noir like Chinatown as a starting point.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? manages to transcend that starting point to become something that is equally funny and engaging. The Happytime Murders never manages to make that leap. Instead, the film assembles a very straightforward plot that is populated with a lot of the standard markers of this kind of story, and never really plays with any of them in any meaningful way. The film focuses on the murders of a number of puppet performers around Los Angeles, with a pastiche of hardboiled narration from puppet private detective Phil Phillips.

Being felt up.

The problem here is that referencing a set of tropes and peppering it with acknowledgement of bodily functions does not make for a good film, or even a competent film. The Happytime Murders is a movie that just plods along from one plot point to the next without any imagination or creativity driving it. There are a number of interesting ideas simmering beneath the surface, with allusions to police brutality and systemic racism, but none of them are developed beyond a cursory acknowledgement.

Instead, The Happytime Murders becomes a cavalcade of teenage riffs on “what’s the most inappropriate thing you can think for a muppet to be doing?”, albeit one masterminded by somebody who had only ever watched Ted or Family Guy. The film moves from muppets at a sex shop to muppets at a criminal poker game to muppets in a crack house to inbred muppets in what looks like the climax of a serial killer movie; for bonus points, there are references to muppets getting raped in prison, muppets ejaculating silly string, muppets having brightly coloured pubic hair.

An XXX-cop.

It’s more tiring than transgressive, The Happytime Murders feeling like a banal list of plot points and humourous set-ups without any actual story development or jokes. There are a few points at which the film seems like it might cohere into something, such as a point where Phil’s human partner develops an addiction to sugar or when the film very briefly transitions into something a bit thematically darker than the cliché private eye narrative, but these moments are fleeting, and the film always returns to the idea of muppets using swear words as the pinnacle of comedy.

The film not only wastes the skill and craft of the Henson family on a script devoid of wit or insight, it also squanders a number of human performers as well. The film features a number of very skilled comic actors, like May Rudolph, Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks. It also feels like a misfire for Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy is one of the strongest comedic performers working today, as demonstrated by her collaborations with Paul Feig, but she seems to suffer at the hands of weaker writers and directors.

He’s working on a (mup)pet theory.

There is a sense that Brian Henson may be part of the problem. Henson clearly understands how puppets work. Indeed, the best thing about this deeply flawed film might be in watching these puppets move; their expressiveness and dexterity remain impressive technical feats, even in the era of computer-generated imagery. Some of the best jokes in The Happytime Murders derive from the physical limitations of puppets in real world scenarios; nothing to do with their genitalia, but the difficulty or reading lips or the ease with which they can be dried out.

However, Henson struggles with the humour that is not directly tied to the physicality of the puppets, which is a lot of the film once the tired sex jokes are removed. There are a number of points at which the human performers are delivering jokes that could hypothetically work in a better shot and edited sequence – a tense stand-off driven by a law enforcement official who can’t see properly through his sunglasses, for example – but which simply don’t work because the film can’t find the rhythm of the joke that it’s telling.

Hot fuzz.

The Happytime Murders is bad, but in a way that isn’t especially interesting. It is lazy and unfocused, unwilling to commit to its premise for anything but the easiest plotting or the broadest jokes. It leaves the audience feeling like the real muppets.

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2 Responses

  1. What? No love for Meet the Feebles?

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