When I watched animated shows as a kid, I really enjoyed the parody cartoons that riffed on familiar tropes from their long-form cinema cousins but never took them too seriously. Bugs Bunny was always going to be a rascally rabbit regardless of what genre he was lampooning or using for very bare-bones source material.
The Happytime Murders, a very grown-up puppet movie, takes this same approach with its neo-noir murder mystery. Director Brian Henson (yes, Jim Henson‘s son) focuses on the X-rated puppet antics he knows people will come for and not any serious narrative stunts. Hollywood noir films like L.A. Confidential and The Player are clear influences for the fluff- and felt-drenched murder spree at the heart of this story.
Detective Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta and Ryan Tran) is former cop, the first and only puppet on the force, who now spends his days as a private investigator who exclusively works the puppet beat. In the world of The Happytime Murders, puppets are perpetually treated as second-class citizens by humans, and Phillips sees himself as the only one looking out for his felted fellows. As it happens so often in these stories, a femme fatale strolls into his office and hires him for a case that will dredge up the sordid events that ruined his police career. Soon, he connects with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and they are off on an investigation filled with mayhem and antics that would be deserving of an X rating if the subjects had skin and not stuffing.
Fans of this niche genre will immediately recall similar material in Avenue Q and the notorious and impossible-to-forget Meet the Feebles. The Happytime Murders matches Feebles in cynicism and misanthropy beat for beat and only lacks the catchy musical numbers of Peter Jackson’s early film. Henson’s production is a little more sophisticated and less low-budgie feeling, plus there is more of an emphasis on the human characters—such as Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), and Agent Campbell (Joel McHale)—than in the earlier naughty puppet escapades. Performances vary from scene to scene, but no one in this cast can be accused of taking things too seriously. The most common pose for the human actors is that of the guest stars on The Muppet Show, winking at the audience while playing along with the puppets.
There are plenty of laughs to be had if you are willing to give yourself over to the orgy of ridiculousness that Henson clearly intended this film to be. You may never see Silly String in the same way after making it through the very long and graphic puppet tryst this film features (something anyone who saw that red-band trailer will already be braced for). There’s plenty of drug humor and references to other scandalous films from the past, too, in case you somehow missed the cues that this film would a long, colorful nosedive into the gutter. While most of the humor isn’t really for “mature” viewers, The Happytime Murders is clearly for an adult audience. Specifically, an adult audience that remembers what “adult bookstore” means.
This is basically a cult film that is trying to be transplanted into the multiplex. I doubt that it will be very successful in that, but it is worth seeing if for no other reason than the chance to see a very demented and very “wrong” film in a suburban theater. Come to think of it, pair The Happytime Murders with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and treat yourself to a double feature of some good old-fashioned, rule-breaking, independent-minded filmmaking.
Plus, these days, you don’t even have to sneak the beer in.