Oh brother, here we go again with the puppets fucking. The Happytime Murders, the new film from Brian Henson—who is Jim Henson’s kid but also just about as established in the realm of puppetry as one can be—is pretty much a Meet the Feebles sequel that no one asked for. And, at least at the screening I attended, audiences are are uh... polarized? Quite a few people stood up and clapped at the end of The Happytime Murders. A seemingly equal amount expressed complaints about wasting an hour and a half of their precious lives watching a ridiculous, derivative puppet buddy cop movie that was only interesting because it contained puppets. I am in the latter camp, with some Melissa McCarthy allowances.
The most entertaining moments in The Happytime Murders revolve around the non-puppet actors. Melissa McCarthy plays Detective Connie Edwards, the former partner of disgraced puppet policeman turned P.I., Phil Philips (voiced and puppeteered by Bill Barretta). Edwards and Philips find themselves partnered again as they attempt to solve a string of gruesome puppet murders, which eventually involve Philips' long-lost love interest Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). The story is about as cookie cutter cop movie as possible, but McCarthy punches in some funny where she can. Philips' receptionist Bubbles (Maya Rudolph)—perhaps sensing the ridiculousness of the situation—seems to be doing whatever the hell she wants, improvising all over the place. It was impossible to get a bead on where she'd take her character next. McCarthy, Rudolph, and Banks were like Charlie’s flippin' Angels in there, doing their best to save the film.
In recent years, McCarthy has become the queen of the bait-and-switch film: The trailer for her 2015 film Spy seemed like one long fat-lady joke, but the movie subversively flipped that tired script and presented McCarthy’s character as personable and capable. You never really know what you’re going to get from a McCarthy film, but the odds are she’ll give you something fun that won't tear her audience down. That's pretty much where we landed with The Happytime Murders too. While the idea of puppets doing self-destructive things is contrived and we wouldn't accept this story sans puppets, McCarthy and Co. were able to salvage the project as a vehicle to try out some truly weird humor.
The premise of a marginalized puppet society interacting with a human one presents a unique opportunity for slang invention, and for once it's done well. (Take some notes, Bright!) There are riffs about puppet vaginas that I never could have imagined existing on this Earth, but now they do, for good or for ill. And teenagers and teens at heart will appreciate the film’s excessively long jizz joke, which actually becomes funny near the end.
Then there's the puppeteering, which is technically groundbreaking. There are tons of interesting puppets to look at, if that's your thing. The end credits are filled with puppeteer hijinks and green screen goofs as if to say, "Thank you for letting us puppet people make our puppet-fucking movie!" Unfortunately, their appreciation doesn't add up to Happytime Murders being a better film. So don't thank me, dudes. Thank Melissa McCarthy for agreeing to make this.