This explicit, R-rated, Muppet-adjacent project (featuring puppets and directed by Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son) forgets one thing about the Muppets themselves: they were always irreverent. Half of the comedy came from Kermit trying to keep a lid on impudence and mockery.
And so the rebelliousness, if not the raunchiness, of The Happytime Murders is not entirely unique. (Remember also that Peter Jackson made a ribald puppet movie early in his career with Meet the Feebles.) What is clever—and funnier than the dismal reviews for this have recognized—is the idea of making a relatively straightforward, B-grade, Hollywood noir populated by puppets. Like the ingenious group bicycle ride in The Great Muppet Caper, The Happytime Murders is at its best not when it’s at its most “adult,” but when the filmmakers find new, surprising ways to employ their puppeteering creativity in the real world.
Sometimes, these two elements—creativity and crudeness—coalesce. The main character is Phil Phillips (voiced by Muppet veteran Bill Barretta), a jaded former police detective now working as a private eye (think Jake Gittes, but bluer, in more ways than one). Given disheveled hair and a rumpled slouch, Phil is a walking manifestation of resignation—and so it’s completely in character whenever he spits out a series of world-weary expletives. And when he smokes, the never-ending plume coming from his mouth is not only a great visual joke, but also a “how did they do that?” moment in the tradition of Caper’s bicycle scene.
There are other such touches in The Happytime Murders, in which the filmmakers come up with creative ways to test the limits of puppetry, but not all of them work quite as well. The most notorious—involving Phil and a nymphomaniac client—fails precisely because it’s the opposite of the smoking gag: the moment is out of character for Phil, and it’s not too hard to figure out how the puppeteers did it.
That scene is about one thing—the shock—and the same could be said of much of Todd Berger’s screenplay. During certain sequences, the same lewd dialogue is repeated three times in a row (never mind that we can see the joke coming from a mile away). Melissa McCarthy, as Phil’s former partner, and Maya Rudolph, as his secretary, are on hand to provide some improvisational CPR here and there, but McCarthy is still batting well below her average in the laughs department. Once again, she finds herself (despite being a producer) in far too many mean-spirited situations where the joke is at her expense.
Energy might have been better spent teasing out the societal implications of the world that The Happytime Murders envisions, in which puppets are considered second-class citizens and actively discriminated against, or worse (one scene involves “puppet poachers”). With its jokes about skin color (or felt color, as the case may be), the movie courts racial connotations that it isn’t quite ready to deal with. Case in point: an ill-advised sight gag in which a group of puppets are being patted down by police. That’s incendiary stuff that could have been put to striking satirical use in the hands of others, but The Happytime Murders’ imagination is too limited. It’s stymied by an obsession with the profane.