There are really only two ways The Happytime Murders could have come about to my mind. Two stoned guys who thought it’d be really funny to take The Muppets and put them in the Jack Nicholson classic Chinatown. The other situation is two studio executives desperate not to be fired and juiced up on coffee, cocaine and sleep deprivation think the exact same thing. The Muppets Take Chinatown is something I would watch. Chinatown Takes The Muppets is closer to the actual result and its worst crime is wasting its premise as well as being boring and unfunny.
The Happytime Gang was a puppet TV show where the puppets are actually actors and not pieces of felt controlled by puppeteers. Twenty years after it ended, its main cast of puppets are being killed off. Puppet PI Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) teams up with his human ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the murders. Phil is also under suspicion from Agent Campbell (a wasted Joel McHale) and tied up with a puppet client Sandra White (Dorien Davies).
The Happytime Murders spent a decade in development hell. Apparently, it started out as a genuine noir spoof with puppets before undergoing so many rewrites that it ended up just being another gimmick comedy full of dick jokes and wasted opportunity. It’s a shame really because Bill Barretta’s voice and puppetry performance of Phil Phillips could fit really well into that kind of film. The rest of the cast? Not so much. McCarthy does her usual schtick of cursing the air blue with the occasional great line among the filth. Elizabeth Banks is underused but at least the puppets are funny to look at even if the setting is wasted.
The film shows great potential to go hard on its transgressive premise at the beginning where Phil goes to a puppet sex shop. He meets a disgusting vulture called Vinny and asks for the magazine “Puppet Pussy Party”. In the back a puppet octopus is jerking off a puppet cow’s udders. All is going fine and disgusting but instead of doubling down on this kind of sordid behaviour director Brian Henson (the son of Jim Henson of The Muppets fame) seems confused as to what kind of film he wants to make. The Happytime Murders falls between gross-out puppet sex comedy and grim neo-noir sort-of-comedy with puppets. Anything with that kind of identity would be confused.
As the credits roll on The Happytime Murders a kind of gag reel starts playing showing the puppeteers messing around on set. Instead of being amusing though it just shows how much potential and effort was wasted on The Happytime Murders. The adult comedy potential occasionally rears its head but only brief and barely enough to warrant a laugh. The Basic Instinct parody will have you heaving in some kind of way but that depends on your personality. Groups of people this skilled and talented should really be working on media of a much higher quality. That said, if you really want to see puppets shoot each other, have sex and do drugs than you don’t have a whole lot of options left to you.