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‘Happytime Murders’ is so hard to respect

September 1, 2018

The late Jim Henson always had a way to reach adults with his Muppet creations. Earlier Muppet films (“The Muppet Movie,” “Great Muppet Caper” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan”) were never afraid to be melancholy and share their fears and feelings, unlike many more sunny-sided kids’ programming options.

Henson also had an ornery side. “The Muppet Show” was a treasure trove of gags - both frantic for the kids and more subversive for adults. His characters had baggage, dealt with messy relationship issues, were afraid to fail ... and often did. They were tuned in to adults without having to broadcast it, and their very fuzzy  presence was enough for kids to visually consume and feel satiated. 

That is why a film like “The Happytime Murders” is so hard to respect. Where the Muppets were the quick-witted students in class who never disrupted, but always had an amusing comeback, the puppets of “Happytime” are the students who draw penises in textbooks, make fart sounds and laugh at their own jokes, regardless of how unfunny they may be.

Brian Henson, Jim’s son, directs this mess that seems to capture none of what made his father’s creations so long-lasting. He seems hell-bent to pack the film with as many sexually explicit and violent puppet-themed acts as possible for the mere sake of shock value. 

In a fictional, modern-day Los Angeles, private detective Phil (voiced by Bill Barretta) shuffles around like a Sam Spade-era gumshoe and tries to keep away from interacting with humans, who have come to hate puppets. One particular afternoon, a sexually aggressive puppet, Sandra (voiced by Dorien Davies) seeks Phil’s help to solve who is murdering puppets from a once-loved TV show called “The Happytime Gang.”

Phil is enlisted by the local police and paired with his former partner, Connie, played by Melissa McCarthy, who once again gives it her all, but to no avail. Throughout their exploits, “Happytime” may have a musical score, but narratively it plays only one note. Instead of creating scenes in which the characters utter something pithy or witty, the writers have the puppets curse, get killed or make sexual innuendos. 

It’s not that shocking the first time, and it is certainly not the 245th time. We’ve already seen Puppets Gone Wild with director Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles,” and what Brian Henson and company fail to deliver is any additional satire needed to make the jokes land. A recent example of how to turn a kid-friendly format on its ear is the wildly bizarre “Wonder Showzen,” a mock children’s show that ran on MTV in 2005.

There is room for a film in which we enjoy puppets unafraid to be raunchy, but it needs more than a washed-out, recycled narrative in order to do so.  

  • Rob is the head of the English and Communications Department at Delaware Technical Community College, where he teaches film. He is also one of the founders of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society and is lead entertainment writer for Influx Magazine. Email him at filmrob@gmail.com.