By: Trevor Chartrand
The Happytime Gang is here! Directed by the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Brian Henson brings us The Happytime Murders, a comedy that takes fun and lovable puppets into some dark new territory.
Similar to 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film is set in a world where puppets walk string-less and free, independent of any hands up their butts. When a series of gruesome puppet murders plague the police, they’re forced to recruit the help of puppet P.I. Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta, who is known for his Muppet work as Pepe the King Prawn, Rowlf the Dog, and Swedish Chef). Phil’s a jaded ex-cop forced to team up with his former partner, the puppet-hating racist (puppetist?) Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).
With a dark and gritty tone, the comedy in this film really flows in an organic way. The puppets play their parts straight, and the laughs simply stem from the absurdity of the situation – a world where puppets do everyday things. We get noir-style narration from a puppet private eye, and the coarse voice contrasts perfectly with the colorful puppet design. The comedic style is nuanced perfectly. That is, until Melissa McCarthy’s character arrives.
The Happytime Murders takes a sharp left turn with the introduction of her overbearing, broader comedic styling. Tonally, it feels as if we’ve suddenly changed channels, and are now watching an entirely different film. It doesn’t help that the character is confusingly inconsistent, beginning as a hard-edged cop with no respect for puppets, only to miss an important bust because she’s too busy getting high with her fluff-filled friends. In the span of a few moments, she goes from a by-the-book puppet-hating officer to a drug-crazed junkie. By the end of the film, her affliction is somewhat justified, but by that point the funny, noir-esque tone has been left far behind.
The puppeteering in this film is superb, with plenty of creative scenarios that prove the filmmakers’ technical prowess. Most impressive are the sequences with puppets driving cars – however they’ve done it, the effect is seamless and it’s a great visual gag. The voice actors bring life to their roles, playing their parts straight-faced to keep the puppets grounded. Each stuffed character even has their own flair and gait, making for a well-built world within the film.
There is one excessive indulgence regarding the puppeteering, in the form of an unnecessary puppet sex sequence. Not only does the scene not make sense from a characterization perspective – the problem is that any puppet fornication ever committed to celluloid will always be compared to the legendary puppet love sequence from Team America: World Police. Unfortunately, this scene in The Happytime Murders doesn’t hold up next to Trey Parker’s 2004 masterpiece.
At the end of the day, you know what you’re getting with a cast featuring comedy titans like Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale and Elizabeth Banks. Their over-the-top, dialogue-heavy stylings in this film are completely consistent with their former projects. For my taste, the amount of improvisation we often see from these actors tends to stand out as obvious, on the nose, and excessive, but it is their brand and should be expected from them at this point. That is to say, McCarthy fans certainly won’t be disappointed.
Overall, The Happytime Murders is a lot of fun, despite its tonal inconsistencies. It’s easy to see the final showdown coming, but it’s an entertaining journey nevertheless. There’s a lot of creative things happening throughout the film, with an effective script executed with technical aptitude. The jokes don’t always land, but when they do, they’re hilarious. The Happytime Murders is a highly enjoyable, straightforward comedy that’s certainly worth a watch.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor