Just because it happens to have puppets in it doesn’t mean that The Happytime Murders is a film for kids (honestly murder in the title should be a bit of a clue). Anyone that has seen any Punch and Judy as an adult would realise that sex and violence has a long and ancient history in puppetry – Meet the Feebles (1989), Greg the Bunny (2002), the popular off Broadway show Avenue Q, heck Sex and Violence was even the title for the original pilot episode of Jim Henson’s Muppet Show, before it was retooled to the less risque variety show that we are all familiar with. Brian Henson follows his father’s tradition, showing that puppets can shock as well as entertain adult audiences, this time adding a bit of a hard-boiled twist to bring those same sensibilities to the big screen.
In a world where puppets co-exist with humans, washed up former LAPD officer now private detective, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), becomes embroiled in a sex-shop multiple homicide while investigating a blackmail case. Reluctantly working with his human former police partner (Melissa McCarthy), Phil attempts to solve the brutal murder of his fellow puppets, but the case soon dredges up elements of his past, as the killer targets members of a successful puppet TV show The Happytime Gang.
The Happytime Murders is an interesting attempt, clearly demonstrating that Henson’s Creature Shop is capable of sheer magic when it comes to putting puppetry on the screen. However in so many other ways The Happytime Murders comes close, but just doesn’t quite deliver the goods. It fails to move on beyond that shock value of dealing with adult concepts through puppetry (an entertainment form we still often associate with childhood). There’s a few half hearted stabs at social commentary by representing the puppets as a downtrodden minority, but neither the comedy or the script are enough to elevate the film to where it needed to be.
The story line is a solid interpretation of noir, blending elements of a buddy cop film in there, but it never surprises with the direction it takes. Same with the comedy, it’s rapid fire improv, but it’s nothing new from McCarthy. Beyond the googly eyes and the felt, we’ve certainly seen this all before, and despite it being competently done, that lack of originality weighs heavy on it.
Ultimately The Happytime Murders may garner something of a following due to its gimmick (although I suspect on streaming), but it never manages to evolve into something greater than that gimmick.