The Happytime Murders and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment
Directed by Brian Henson
Well the day has finally arrived! After a decade of production hell, Brian Henson has FINALLY completed his dream project and is ready to show it to the world! I’m excited to say the least, especially after they released the trailer and I started looking into Henson Alternative which is the offshoot of the Henson Company that’s responsible for bringing this to life, and sure some of their productions have been less than stellar, but this premise is just too great of an idea to NOT want to see get made! I rarely get this excited for a movie as I usually try not to get too hyped for stuff that I’ll end up reviewing (I’m also VERY good at living under a rock so a lot of movie do sneak up on me), but for this one I have very high hopes that we’ll get something unique if nothing else. Does this manage to exceed my expectations and is one of the best action comedies this year, or was this yet another pet project that should have never seen the light of day? Let’s find out!!
Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a private eye working in Los Angeles who not only used to be a cop but was the very first puppet cop in the city. However, after… THE INCIDENT… that ousted him from the force, he’s been making ends meet digging up other people’s dirty laundry. May not be the most noble of professions, but it keeps a roof over his head, a steady paycheck for his assistant Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), and a well-stocked shelf of booze. Content with his sad life, Phil never expected that his latest client Sandra White (Dorien Davies) to be the one that changes it all forever. Well sort of. While investigating a blackmail letter that Miss White received, Phil stumbles upon a bunch of dead puppets; one of whom was a cast member of a famous puppet TV show known as The Happytime Gang. Things get even worse for Phil once his former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is put on the case, and Phil eventually finds his way towards investigating it himself when more Happytime Gang bodies start piling up; especially since his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) was one of the cast members as well as Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the woman he loved. Can Phil and Connie put aside their differences regarding… THE INCIDENT… in order to solve this case and save the lives of the remaining Happytime Gang? What could possibly be motivating such killings, and could it have something to do with Phil himself? Can we get Best Achievement in Puppets category for the Oscars? I feel like this should win SOMETHING, and if we’re making up new awards anyway!
This movie has been getting a lot of negative heat and I simply cannot understand why because I absolutely loved this movie! I mean, is it PERFECT!? Well… yeah, pretty much! For what it’s trying to do it’s about as good as could be reasonably expected, and as a raunchy comedy it’s hit rate for jokes is well above a lot of other films I’ve seen that haven’t gotten even half the negative reception this has as well as movies that got a fair bit of praise this year (*cough* Game Night *cough*). It’s not completely without flaws (what film is?) and I can see where a few of the jokes or even certain aspects of its premise itself won’t be to some people’s liking. It’s certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel as far as its film noir inspired influences, and even I found a few moments that fell REALLY flat, but this is much better than I’ve seen it getting credit for and the overall negativity against it is genuinely surprising to me. Then again, I’m also the critic who still adores Jupiter Ascending and I made The Purge: Election Year my number one film of 2016, so maybe this is just WAY too much in my wheelhouse for me to NOT instantly fall in love with it.
So getting the obvious out the way first, while art and films are ALWAYS subjective, comedy is one of the hardest genres to quantify as humor itself is something that hits on a very personal level and jokes will inevitably work better for some than others. What this movie is is a straightforward (almost to a fault) satire of film noire tropes that are made to look even more ridiculous due to the juxtaposition of fuzzy puppets with such raunchy humor. On that level, I really do think it succeeds on every single one of those points; some to a better degree than others, but nothing about the premise, the story, or the overall structure feels lacking or drags the rest of the movie down. In fact, I think the writing is REALLY strong here that takes familiar set ups and tropes but infuses them with enough genuinely funny moments and endearing characters to sell us on the story. The reliance on a familiar script leaves a lot of room for world building and individual character arcs that flesh out this world to a greater degree than I would have imagined considering how easy it would have been to simply use the gimmick of PUPPETS DOING BAD THINGS to hang the success of this movie off of; something that its closest contemporary Meet the Feebles (there’s even a rather direct reference to it very early on in this movie) ended up doing for the most part. Considering how low the scores have been for this for this movie I’m a bit hesitant to make this comparison, but to me it worked in a lot of the same ways that Who Framed Roger Rabbit worked; not to SUCH a great degree, but the blending of two different worlds (cartoons in that, puppets in this) feels rather seamless all things considered which just goes to show how deft and on point the writing is that you barely even feel the disconnect while also not downplaying the joy in the novelty of it all. I LOVED seeing the various puppet designs throughout as well as the various techniques used to bring them to life! There’s a big bulldog jerk who’s incredibly well detailed and elaborate for such a small role, but that’s the kind of effort the filmmakers wanted to put in this. Brian Henson, the crew at Henson Alternative, and everyone else who made this movie what it is clearly had a great passion for their work which is so much more than you can say for a lot of other raunchy comedies that we see nowadays.
As a story I think it’s more than functional even if it’s pretty predictable (it didn’t take long for me to figure out who the killer was), but it’s all the stuff they add to the story that makes it work as well as it does. The way the plot plays out is a lot like the movie Bright which several critics have already pointed out, and while the comparisons are VERY obvious (Phil is the first puppet detective on the LAPD whose human partner suffers a tragedy that’s potentially their fault) I don’t think they’re ENTIRELY fair? I mean I’m certainly not the FIRST person to listen to when it comes to this kind of thing and I’ll definitely try to understand other points of views on this, but there’s a lot of ways that this manages to work in most of the places that Bright ended up failing miserably. Anytime you do a story about oppression that replaces ACTUAL oppressed people with something else (puppets, cartoons, mythical creatures), you run the risk of simply appropriating other people’s lived experiences rather than elevate the issues that they face. For something like Bright where the ENTIRE MOVIE was about race relations, this becomes a problem because the film does a bad job of explaining the lore, how we got here, and how institutionalized issues came to be; all the while using the culture of oppressed people (mostly in a tacky way) as a visual shortcut. This movie kind of has the same problem with its puppet characters being treated as second class citizens, but I’ll cut the movie some slack in that the film is INFORMED by those aspects instead of being ABOUT them, and there are a few moments that showcase a decent amount of nuance. Phil’s brother in particular has bleached his skin (literally) to take most of his blue color out, and he had a nose job to look more like a human’s nose. I think that’s interesting and brings up issues of oppression that aren’t as overt and shows that these kind of societal pressure even affect those who are “well off” so to speak as oppression can still hit you if your rich, but even if you disagree with me on that point it’s not something that takes over the movie as it’s always squarely focused on Phil and his partner Connie who are heart and soul of this movie and the real reason why this movie works as well as it does. Despite its very straightforward and clichéd story, is the chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Phil voiced by Bill Barretta are what you’re going to remember the most coming out of this. We know McCarthy is an absolute comedy treasure (don’t argue with me on that!) and she brings a lot to this role; even more so than she did the LAST time she played a cop back in The Heat. She’s funny throughout, but she also takes it rather seriously and I bought her as a cop instead of just a Funny Movie Cop, and it helps to sell the more dramatic scenes whenever she’s busting down doors or trying to get Phil out of trouble. Bill Barretta does a similar thing here with his character as he knows how to crack jokes and is quite cynical, but he plays it mostly straight and does a good job of selling the years of blood, sweat, and utter tragedies that have brought him to the place he is now. Yeah, I know he’s a freaking Muppet in a movie with an abundance of dick jokes, but it all goes back to just how much effort was put into this movie. Nothing feels wasted here and they do a good job of selling every aspect of this; whether it’s the funny puppet humor, the riffs on clichéd film Noire, or even the personal character moments that sell the relationship between Collins and Phil despite one being a world famous comedian and the other being a puppet with someone’s hand up its butt to make him move.
While I don’t think this movie stumbles in any SIGNIFICANT way, there are aspects of this that we should address. As I said, some of the jokes don’t work and there are even a few go right into offensive territory. There are a few puppets that trade in on ethnic stereotypes in their designs (the Rastafarian guy being a PRETTY bad example) and someone should have caught that during the production of this, as well as there is a subplot that involves incest that has a rather tasteless stab at those who are victims of inbreeding. On top of that, while the straightforward Film Noir narrative is a GREAT starting point for this kind of movie, some of those clichés feel kind of outdated. Even some of the cop stuff which, while ABSOLUTELY better than Bright, still land a bit poorly in this movie. Melissa McCarthy is a great female character in this as well as Mya Rudolph who plays Phil’s assistant, but we’ve got a one dimensional Femme Fatale who never really feels like she has enough to do in this, and there’s another character who more or less is on hand just to give motivation to a male character. Phil’s tragic backstory as well, while done SO much better than Bright’s is still a rather harmful cliché of the genre that really should have been phased out by now, but I guess the filmmakers were so concerned with getting the thing to feel SO much like a Film Noir that they didn’t think of how certain aspects of the genre wouldn’t fit well with modern sensibilities. Honestly, we might be getting to the point where Cop Movies will go the way of the Western, in that we really can’t take the mythologizing seriously anymore, and there’s a bit too much of that here. Not to the point that it becomes a huge distraction, but… maybe come up with a DIFFERENT tragic backstory instead of the one that pretty much every Movie Ex-Cop has. That’s about it as far as flaws. Not every joke landed, but almost all made me chuckle at least and even the ones that didn’t work weren’t that long or protracted so as to leave much of an impact when they did fall flat. I mean I certainly have my blind spots about certain things (I didn’t even think about a scene with dogs being racially coded until I saw someone else point it out), but for the most part I think this is first and foremost a great buddy comedy with McCarthy and a very well realized puppet character, and even goes the extra mile in certain regards to sell as just a bit more than that; even if some of the directions they go in could have used a bit more tweaking. Also, Kevin Clash can piss off. In case it wouldn’t be obvious where I would stand on his involvement here and it’s a REALLY disappointing that such a great movie has that jackass connected to it.
It’s probably a bit too harsh of me to be THIS flabbergasted that the film hasn’t connected as well for others as it has for me, but I still absolutely recommend this movie and would say that it’s worth giving a chance despite how negative the reception has been so far. It’s certainly a solid contender for my top ten list if that means anything to you, and frankly we’re not gonna get another movie like this anytime soon, especially with the way this one is landing with a thud, so check it out if you have the chance even if I can’t guarantee you’ll love it as much as I did. I hope Henson Alternative has more to offer going forward even if their decade long dream project isn’t getting the reception they were hoping for, but considering my luck this will end up being another Jupiter Ascending or even Ghostbusters; a great movie with minor issues that never really finds its audience when it needed to and basically ended any chance for a sequel or continuation. Well at least I got more than one Purge movie, so that’s something. Hmm… mental note; pitch The Purge: Puppet Night to Jason Blum…