If you were asked to name the first Muppet to pop into your head, the answer would inevitably be tied to your introductory experience. If you named Big Bird or Kermit, you likely know how to get to Sesame Street. Namecheck Hoggle, Sir Didymus, Ambrosius, or Ludo, you’re well versed in the power of the babe (1986’s Labyrinth). Still harbor nightmares about the Skeksis? You know what damage a crack in a crystal can create (1982’s The Dark Crystal). These are the tales that inhabit generations’ worth of minds. It’s not just the fluffy, heartfelt musical numbers of The Muppets Movie, Muppet Treasure Island, or even the newest film in the catalog, Muppets Most Wanted, but the stories of adolescent pain born from growing up (see aforementioned Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal). Director Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol) seeks a return to that kind of uncomfortable, gritty storytelling with The Happytime Murders, a comedic film noir featuring an all-star cast of comedians and a brand new gang of puppets to meet, love, and lose.
In an alternate reality where puppets and humans live side-by-side in Los Angeles, disgraced ex-cop Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta) works as a private investigator catching cases however he can. Like all private dicks, Philips’s problems begin with a blackmail case brought to him by femme fatale Sandra White (voiceed by Dorien Davies), incidentally putting him right in the middle of a murder scene. A murder scene that just so happens to include former TV star Bumblypants (voiced by Kevin Cash) who was a co-star of Phil’s brother Larry (voiced by Victor Yerrid) on the beloved ’80s mixed-cast sensation The Happytime Gang. When cast member after cast member begins to suffer from one tragic incident after another, it’s up to Phil, his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and his secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) to work the case and stop the killer.
The first thing that stands out about Happytime isn’t the puppeteering or the obvious gonzo-approach to comedy, but the attempts by Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger (Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters) to tell a story that doesn’t pull any punches about who the puppets are to the general populace. As the audience explores alt-L.A. during a narrated tour from Phil at the opening, we see puppets getting accosted by the police, cornered by dogs whose owners are oblivious, or even beaten by kids just for the jollies. But do the puppets get upset? No, not even after having an eye ripped out because entertaining is “what they do.” Considering Happytime is a comedy full of zany, even gross-out humor, this opening lays out a heaviness that permeates the majority of the film as the audience observes the grisly murders that come next. It’s a bold and unexpected approach for a film that also features puppets engaging in fetishistic and hentai-like acts, but considering the fatalism that pervades Happytime – an aspect interlocked with the noir genre – it makes sense to open the film with the notion that just because the film features puppets doesn’t mean it’s going to be a joyful story. It’s also a fantastic way to establish that the narrative within Happytime has more in common with the PG-rated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than 2011’s The Muppets.
After the opening, the biggest strength to Happytime is the cast and their commitment to playing everything straight. Shirking winks and nods to the camera, with the exception of the puppet cast, the whole of Happytime feels like any noir. This does, unfortunately, create some problems to the overall surprise or enjoyment of Happytime as it becomes enormously predictable plot-wise, but this is a film sold not on plot, but on gimmick. In that regard, the film always feels fresh, jumping from joke-to-joke with an assured narrative flow. With the exception of a running gag where everyone initially think’s Connie’s a man – a joke that gets frustratingly eye-rolling awful quickly – the rest feels undeniably inventive. There may be some instances where you want to scrub your eyeballs a bit – looking at you puppet octopus milking a puppet cow – but others, like a puppet Dalmatian whipping a fireman, will have you howling in your seat.
At a tight 90 minutes, The Happytime Murders wastes zero time getting to the heart of the story, resulting in a film that doesn’t linger too long on any one joke or moment to the detriment of the audience. The issue with that, however, is there’s no real investment in any of the characters beyond Phil, Connie, and Bubbles. The audience is certainly told who to care about, but due to the lack of time spent with any of the characters and the rush to keep things concise, there’s a low investment in the experience. Sure, Happytime is hilarious in an unexpected way, but it doesn’t feel enough to make it wholly memorable beyond a few key scenes.
In the list of films featuring puppetry, The Happytime Murders may not land toward the top, but it certainly doesn’t belong at the bottom. Packed with unbelievably unexpected jokes and a more than capable cast of humans, voice talent, and puppeteers, The Happytime Murders is more fun than the trailers let-on. Sure it leans into its gimmick hard and may not absolutely wow audiences, but it’ll certainly entertain and help distract from the pains of the world. Besides, who expects high art when the official trailer ends on two puppets caught-up in amorous passion? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.