Director Brian Henson – son of legendary Muppets creator Jim Henson – has been upholding his father’s legacy for almost 30 years. He has run the Jim Henson Company and overseen the continued tradition of The Muppets, as well as creating new programs like Farscape, Bear in the Big Blue House and the upcoming The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance for Netflix. Needless to say, he has been a stalwart of children’s television and has honoured his father’s dedication to wholesome entertainment.
Which brings us to The Happytime Murders, an exploit of vulgarity that drops Henson’s puppets into a contemporary film noir setting where innocence is lost and debauchery prevails. Set in a society where humans and puppets coexist, the plot follows Phil Phillips, a washed up former puppet detective (now P.I.) who finds himself caught up in a series of gruesome (ie fluffy) murders. As the former stars of a popular sitcom, The Happytime Gang, are murdered one-by-one, Phillips discovers the connection and finds himself knee deep in an investigation. He teams up with his former partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and begins pulling at threads that reveal a well-orchestrated plot that seems to be closer to him than he realises.
What on Earth would Jim Henson make of this film? With his unblemished reputation and a noble philosophy of educating via creation, it stands to reason that he could very well be turning in his grave at the thought of such filth. And yet, given Brian Henson’s own virtuous history of creative output, it is also reasonable for audiences to embrace this new chapter in his career as he forges a new era with his new company Alternative Henson (AH!).
The Happytime Murders is a marvellous technological achievement. The film snubs CGI in favour of practical puppetry and were it not for the fantastic behind-the-scenes look we get during the end credits, we would be forgiven for thinking that Henson got cheeky with his digital effects. As it turns out, he shoves people into green screen body suits, who manipulate the puppets from head to toe. The resulting effect is a cast of upwardly mobile puppet characters who not only walk and talk, but also snort drugs and hump like rabbits. It is a colourful, atmospheric and beautifully shot film that plays out like a hybrid of The Maltese Falcon, Seven and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Regrettably, however, the film suffers from its own sense of self-awareness and a misguided attitude that what they’ve created is entirely original. Of course, there is precedence for such entertainment with Peter Jackson being the first to bastardise the Muppets with his cult classic Meet the Feebles. And of course subsequent titles like Team America and Avenue Q (amongst others) have given the genre a run for its money.
In the case of The Happytime Murders, most of the emphasis is placed upon the vulgarity, with little thought being given to the story at hand. Henson delivers a tsunami of smutty and obnoxious gags to the point where little else seems to matter. Given how amazing his production design is, it’s a shame that the crime investigation component of the narrative is so riddled with obscenities. Melissa McCarthy winces over in pain following a failed attempt to kick down a door and cries, “I broke my Hyman!” I’m not sure what reaction this joke was reaching for, but if the crickets in my cinema were any measure of judgment, it missed the mark. Add to the list of bawdy humour: a silly string orgasm, an eight-armed/four-teeted cow “reach around”, a Basic Instinct-inspired beaver shot and an everlasting supply of F-bombs.
The Happytime Murders is a mixed bag, to say the least. It boasts a massive appeal for moviegoers with its promise of adult-oriented nostalgia, as well as its dependable cast including Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph in addition to McCarthy, and yet it rams its MA rating (Australian classification) down our throats. While it delivers enough laughs to sustain a moderately positive rating, it fails to overcome the one-trick-pony syndrome.
Perhaps with lower expectations you might get more out of it than I did, and if you’re fortunate enough you will have a happy-go-lucky audience to laugh along with. But to end on a positive note, I will reiterate that there’s plenty to get out of the production design, as well as the puppet wizardry… so when all else fails you can rely on something.