The Happytime Murders movie review: Avenue not quite

Happytime Murders
The puppets in The Happytime Murders are DTF.

Whenever The Henson Company tries something new, they innovate techniques that pay off in future projects if not the first time. As their first foray into an R-rated puppet movie, The Happytime Murders is as innovative as The Dark Crystal, and just as flawed.

P.I. Phil Phillips (Brian Barretta) is on a case when one of the stars of The Happytime Gang is murdered (along with other puppets in the crossfire). It turns out someone is murdering the stars of the show, so Phil has to team up with his ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case.

Happytime Murders
She’s a human! He’s a puppet! How will they ever get along?

Seeing puppets and humans coexist in a grown-up world is remarkable. It’s not the same sort of wink that Muppets interacting with celebrities is.

Most remarkably, scenes in public are populated with a mix of human and puppet extras. Puppets still require puppeteers to behave like background extras, but they blend seamlessly with human extras.

Happytime Murders
Look behind Elizabeth Banks to see some extraordinary puppeteering in the background.

If anything, it’s applying puppets to the world of raunchy comedy that needs work. I know these performers do improv shows, but it feels like the freedom of an R-rating may have overwhelmed them into falling back on lazy shock value jokes.

The Henson team is in good company. Every wave of raunchy comedy comes with examples of movies that went too far just for the sake of topping the other movies. So the R-rated puppet movie has the same caveat, although The Happytime Murders is not alone in this genre.

Happytime Murders
What are you gonna do, arrest me for smoking?

Team America: World Police certainly went farther, but it suited Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s confrontational satire. The Happytime Murders still follows the sort of vaudevillian Muppet rhythm, so extended naughty shots don’t really fit into that structure.

I understand that most audiences did not see the theater production of Avenue Q. Movie audiences may be witnessing puppet sex for the first time. However, even within the course of one movie, that’s one joke that can’t sustain 90 minutes.

Happytime Murders
Melissa McCarthy investigates a puppet crime den in The Happytime Murders

Avenue Q is an example of how a three hour plus Broadway show can sustain edgy puppet material and still get the raunchy laughs. That show is about postgrad life crises, and follows a more Sesame Street setup.

That too has the hook of applying a children’s show to adult issues. There hadn’t been an educational PBS type show for grown-ups. The Happytime Murders is doing the same thing action movies did, just with puppets.

Happytime Murders
Just another P.I. with a faithful secretary (Maya Rudolph)

One of the problems is, when you parody a generic cop drama with puppets, you’ve still got a generic cop drama. Having puppets do the tropes doesn’t elevate it the way the Muppets elevate saccharine family movies by going meta.

And sure, puppets should be able to make genre fare just like human actors do. It’s not incumbent on Phil to debate existential themes just because other puppet stories do. But there’s also precedent for combining the hard boiled detective genre with animated characters, so Eddie Valiant threw down the gauntlet for Phil Philips 30 years ago.

The Happytime Murders
Melissa McCarthy has a tell in The Happytime Murders

Perhaps it works for the Muppets because the Henson team is already well-versed in children’s entertainment by the time they do edgier subversive Muppet fare. Maybe they’re less familiar with the R-rated cop drama world, which again bodes well for their second R-rated film now that they’ve learned.

McCarthy has a few action scenes that reminded me of Spy, so I got a little Melissa McCarthy action fix there. I do like the characters of Phil and other adult puppets so I would see them in something else.

Happytime Murders
Phil Philips should return in a different vehicle.

I have faith though. Henson experiments tend to pay off. The Dark Crystal was an experiment in doing an entirely puppet movie. It didn’t work but the techniques the Henson company learned on that enabled them to make Labyrinth and now people love both.

Labyrinth also didn’t work in 1986 but audiences discovered it eventually (it is my favorite movie of all time FWIW). I’m saying that for the first R-rated Henson movie, The Happytime Murders lays the groundwork. Hopefully there is another Henson Alternative film that can use these techniques more effectively.

The Happytime Murders opens Friday, August 24.

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