It’s tough being a puppet these days. After what seemed like a return to puppet glory with The Muppets in 2011, the cinematic Muppet momentum ended three years later with Muppets Most Wanted—and then the 2015 TV series tanked.
Considering this stalling of The Muppets franchise, it seemed like a good time for a former Muppet stalwart, Brian Henson (son of Muppet founder Jim), to take puppets in a more-adult direction. After all, Jim Henson had a more-adult incarnation for The Muppets in mind way back in the 1970s when they appeared on the first season of Saturday Night Live. (It’s true!) A raunchier band of puppets would be a fine addition to the Henson legacy.
That is, it would be a fine addition had Henson Alternative—an “adult” branch of the Jim Henson Company—made something better than The Happytime Murders, a listless, joyless, humorless exercise in how not to make a puppet movie.
The film is set up like a Muppets movie, with puppets interacting with humans—but Kermit and company are banned from the set in favor of bland, seriously unfunny puppets that fail to distinguish themselves in any way. Brian Henson directs, his first big-screen directing gig since Muppet Treasure Island, and it’s a lost puppet cause. Henson’s directing chops have not aged like fine wine; they’ve aged like a mango that got lost in the back of the refrigerator six months ago.
Melissa McCarthy—having a disastrous year with this and the terrible Life of the Party—takes the lead human role as Det. Connie Edwards, former partner of puppet cop-turned-private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta).
The two team up again when puppet cast members of ’80s TV show The Happytime Gang start getting the cotton pulled out of them in a series of visually uncreative deaths. (OK, the one puppet getting shredded by band of dogs led by a Boston terrier made me chuckle a little, but it’s only because I have a Boston terrier currently living in my home, and I’m pretty sure she would shred a living puppet if given the chance.)
While there are hints of some funny premises—for example, Connie got a puppet liver transplant, so she’s tragically addicted to sugar—none of them are taken to fruitfully funny extremes. That’s because writer Todd Berger’s screenplay thinks gags should be a laugh-getters just because they’re naughty. There’s no room for wit or depth in his land of puppetry, just F-bombs and silly-string ejaculate. Frankly, I’m surprised the film doesn’t have an overload of puppet farts. (Actually, puppet farts might be funny. They’d sound like wind passing through sheets left out on a line to dry on a sunny summer day.)
Other human actors looking totally lost include Joel McHale as an FBI guy. (I couldn’t help but notice that McHale’s hairpiece/transplants look less convincing than the hair on the puppet heads.) Maya Rudolph fares a little better as Philip’s human secretary, but Leslie David Baker appears to be in serious pain delivering his typical police-chief lines. Elizabeth Banks gets the worst gig as Jenny, the only human member of the Happytime Gang, who is forced to make out with Philip.
I am very much up for some nastily funny puppet activity. I think Team America: World Police is one of the 21st century’s funniest movies, and The Happytime Murders had good people involved. Alas, a mundane McCarthy and babbling felt heads lead to what will stand as one of the year’s lousiest movies.
I’d say nothing that nothing good could come out of The Happytime Murders, but maybe its failure will create a hankering for the return of Kermit and friends. Regardless, something tells me if McCarthy gets a script for a new Muppet movie by courier in the future, she’s going to kick that courier in the nether region.
The Happytime Murders is playing at theaters across the valley.