Cinematic Releases: The Happytime Murders (2018) - Reviewed

There has always been an element of hidden perversity and darkness to Jim Henson’s work. Even the family-friendly Muppets were, at times, set up to deal with some adult themes, always illustrated with the madcap genius of Henson’s sensibilities. Brian Henson, Jim’s son, has taken the familiar design of his father’s puppets and brought to life a murder mystery that marries the gentle homage of Avenue Q with the raunch and grit of Cool World and the charm of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, all with the social metaphors intact – and it is both fantastically inappropriate and preposterously, uproariously funny.

With irreverent abandon, Henson creates a world wherein humans and puppets coexist, and puppets are treated as second-class citizens, so most of them live in poverty and desperation, addicted to colorful sugar that acts as cocaine and making their livings as drug-lord degenerates or purveyors of bizarre puppet smut. The seedy felt underbelly of Los Angeles is serviced by grizzled private investigator Phil Philips (performed and voiced by Bill Barretta), the city’s only former puppet cop,with a dark memory hanging over his head. As, one by one, the cast members of a beloved old television show, The Happytime Gang, are murdered and Phil finds himself at the center of suspicion, he must team up with his former police partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to catch the killer and clear his name, all while dodging the inherent prejudices held against him. Hilarity ensues as Phil and Edwards navigate the clues and try to piece together the murderer’s plan, antagonizing one another every step of the way and trying to see past the mistakes Phil made when he was on the job twenty years prior.

The story itself is a bit silly and simplistic, but the real focus of the film is on its character dynamics and the outlandish, over-the-top vulgar humor in which they revel. The world of The Happytime Murders is both ridiculous and sad, coupling caricatures of real pain with the fervently exaggerated violence and absurdist insanity that colors the Henson collective’s best works. There is something delightfully perverse in watching cute puppet characters selling themselves for sugar highs or dropping F-bombs in rapid succession, but for humor like this to work, there must be a semblance of substance – and Henson’s crew understands this. Phil’s journey as a character, particularly considering his relationship with Edwards, the only human who really cares about the murders of a bunch of “felts”, touches on the kinds of complex human emotions that make him more than just a sock full of stuffing – but there is no saccharine sentimentality in this world. 

The kind of fearless crudeness that drives the comedy here is a gamble, but it works well precisely because it’s so ludicrous and unexpected. While Jim Henson himself toyed with the bizarre, the grotesque, and sometimes even the lewd or suggestive, he and his legacy are often remembered for wholesomeness -  puppetry, particularly with Henson’s name attached to it, is still widely viewed as children’s or family entertainment in the United States. 

But, much like Avenue Q before it – which was developed by Muppet alumni - The Happytime Murders takes the fantasy of a puppet reality and brings it into the human world, and that means a cuddly dog puppet might star in a sordid BDSM porn film, a human might be accosted by “rotten cotton” prostitutes, or an adorable rabbit resembling Bean Bunny might get the stuffing blown out of him. 

Those familiar with other works from the Henson Company will be pleased to recognize many of the puppet performers that round out this talented cast, from Barretta himself, who has taken on many of Jim Henson’s iconic roles in recent years, to Kevin Clash, who is perhaps best known as Sesame Street‘s Elmo from 1980-2014. Melissa McCarthy’s cartoony, slapstick cop fits right in with the wacky lunacy surrounding her, and she plays just as well off of her fellow human co-stars – of particular note is Joel McHale, as clueless FBI agent Campbell, with whom a series of extremely juvenile jokes actually, surprisingly, works. 

Far rougher around the edges than its predecessors, The Happytime Murders is essentially a recipe of nostalgia, impropriety, and just enough grounding to keep it from being a heartless pastiche. You may come out of this film never being able to see Henson’s puppets – or Silly String – the same way ever again, but you will definitely laugh your ass off enjoying this eccentric, riotous romp through an alternate universe literally stuffed with true Henson-brand mania.

--Dana Culling