On a hazy Thursday night, Brian Henson inserts his dusty old The Muppet Movie VHS into an ancient CRT TV he found in the basement.
He perches his feet upon the faded recliner, places his chromatic bong to his lips and presses play on the remote. Fistfuls of stale Doritos hurl valiantly into his pie hole. Brian, choking upon nuclear yellow chip fragments from laughter at one of Miss Piggy’s classic diva moments, ponders to himself, “Maaan, wouldn’t it be, like, super funny if puppets did drugs, murdered one another and booooned a heap. Heh-heh-heh. Someone should call Jim Henson’s son and see if he can, like, get those Muppets to do weird shit”.
Then it hit him.
“Wait a minute. I’m Jim Henson’s son!”
Thus, we have The Happytime Murders.
Now, to clarify, Henson was smart enough not to use the Muppets IP, so thankfully adult audience members won’t have their childhood memories ruined through innuendos involving Fozzie Bear’s name or the deportation of Swedish Chef back to Scandinavia. Instead, we are introduced to ex-puppet-cop turned puppet-private-detective Phil Phillips (puppeteer Bill Barretta), reuniting with ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (real-life human Melissa McCarthy, presumably not a puppeteer), as they traverse their way through a by-the-numbers murder mystery plot.
It isn’t clear whether The Happytime Murders is using the plot points as a parody of generic crime tropes, or just too lazy to come up with something more. Either way, the plot is enough to keep things driving but don’t expect anything out of the ordinary.
The main issue with this movie can be summarised by the now-archived genre mash on The Happytime Murders Wikipedia page: ‘action crime mystery black comedy thriller’. The jack of all trades, master of none. One minute, we are witnessing the brutality of human vs puppet class divide, the next we are witnessing gross-out comedy that is about as subtle as, well, a puppet ejaculating silly string over an entire office space.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with gross-out humour when executed correctly. South Park has an eclectic collection of shit, piss and puke jokes that have garnered critical acclaim. However, it’s the social commentary aspects that contextualise the gross-out humour that make it all worthwhile. You just don’t feel that with The Happytime Murders. Yes, it is meant to be crude, but let the audiences piece together at least some of the jokes in their head rather than turkey-slapping it in our face.
It is really hard to be critical of Henson’s execution because honestly if given the opportunity to act out the wildest, grotesque scenarios with a bunch of puppets in a multi-million dollar budget movie, there is no way in hell you’d say no. But once you’ve controlled the tentacles of an octopus as he jerks off the udders of an orgasmic cow spraying milk all over the joint, you gotta question your life choices. Well, maybe not, that actually does sound pretty fun, but you’d better hope Sesame Street wasn’t your fallback option because they aren’t calling any time soon.
Objectively, this movie is a dream; puppets doing all kinds of taboo stuff for an adult audience. And this isn’t a movie made for critics. This is a gross-out comedy that takes advantage of any situation to make a laugh, cheap or otherwise, and does have funny moments to it. But the execution is a bit ‘meh’. It’s not the level of crudeness that’s the issue, it’s the level of comedy.
If you are wanting to see puppets do adult stuff, watch Avenue Q, or Wonder Showzen for some surreal-yet-entertaining taboo puppetry. If you are wanting to watch a clever portrayal of class divide in a cutesy environment, watch Zootopia (2016). If you want to see a bunch of puppets snort glitter to get high as balls while talking about how high as balls they are, watch The Happytime Murders.
The title chosen for the Italian release is a spoof of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”. In Italy, the title was changed to “Pupazzi senza gloria”, which translates to “Inglorious Puppets”.