Brian Henson, son of famous Mississippian and puppeteer Jim Henson, made his directorial return last week with the release of “The Happytime Murders,” starring Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards and Bill Barretta as puppet Phil Phillips.
“The Happytime Murders” follows disgraced-cop-turned-private-investigator Phillips, who is forced to reunite with his former partner Detective Edwards to investigate the murders of the cast of a beloved sitcom called “The Happytime Gang.”
Sounds like a dark plot for a movie with puppets, right? Well, it gets darker.
In an attempt to subvert the genre of puppet films, the likes of which no one has seen since “Avenue Q,” the film is full of vulgarity, sex and drugs. Hit with an R-rating for good reason, “The Happytime Murders” is definitely not for kids.
Take away the puppets, and this film is nothing special. It barely clocks in at 90 minutes, and at its heart, the movie is a murder-mystery whodunit. The cast and some of the movie’s underlying messages, though, are the film’s best aspects.
Leslie David Baker, best known as Stanley from “The Office,” plays Detective Edwards’ boss, Lieutenant Banning, and has some of the funniest one-liners in the movie. Victor Yerrid portrays Phillips’ brother Larry Shenanigans Phillips, and his portrayal makes a generally unlikeable, archetypal character endearing to the audience.
In almost every buddy cop film, there is a “straight man” who remains more composed and serious than his or her counterpart. McCarthy’s character is the straight man for the first part of this film — an interesting choice for an actress known for her comedic chops. However, she has proven her talent over the past few years and has shown that she can handle almost any role in a comedy film. And she, of course, delivers a stellar performance in this film.
Since half of the movie’s characters are puppets with static faces, it is much harder for these actors to play off of each other, making the acting performances that much more impressive.
This film has received a lot of negative attention (a 22-percent on Rotten Tomatoes) for its use of puppets in a subversive, yet unoriginal, way. Dirty-talking puppets appeared years ago on Broadway, with “Avenue Q.” That play and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — both of which are clear inspirations for “The Happytime Murders” — featured adult actors interacting with cartoonish characters.
What is different about this film, however, is the way it treats the puppets. They aren’t just regular citizens in the world of this film; they are treated as second-rate and are discriminated against.
Phillips makes history in the movie’s world by being the “first and last” puppet cop, but an FBI agent who later joins the investigation automatically assumes that Phillips is guilty of some sort of puppet-on-puppet violence.
This allegorical discrimination never beats the audience over the head, but it is an undeniable part of the film’s message.
This is not to say that everything about this film is great. The ending feels rushed, as though there were 20 minutes cut from the ending. There is also a budding romance between Phillips and Bubbles, his human secretary, that isn’t convincing.
However, this movie is so fun that some of these imperfections can be overlooked.
Adult content dressed up as children’s content hasn’t been new since “South Park” debuted in 1997. Though some critics have said that the film is unoriginal for that reason, they are missing the truly fun movie beneath the slightly unoriginal surface.
Some of the jokes don’t land, and one overtly sexual scene lasts far too long, but there is still a great time to be had. The whodunit style will keep you guessing until the end, and the film’s underlying message of discrimination will definitely make you feel like it was a good use of 90 minutes.
As long as jokes about sex and drugs don’t offend you, ignore the critics and check out “The Happytime Murders.” You might be pleasantly surprised.