Friday, August 24, 2018

'The Happytime Murders' Felt Dirty

No puppet. No puppet! She's the puppet!

When I first saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, I feared it might be a movie that could ruin my childhood. Adult versions of kids entertainment, and seeing G-rated characters doing X-rated things is a something that will always make my inner child wince a little.

Luckily, The Happytime Murders is too far removed from the Muppets of my youth to cause any lasting damage. It doesn't live in the land of the Muppets, instead giving us a world that's a cross between the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the regrettable 1978 porno Let My Puppets Come, with way too much emulation of the dirtiness of the latter and not enough of the screwy humor of the former.

Like Roger Rabbit, the story is a Los Angeles mystery set in a world where humans and the improbable co-exist. In this case, it's puppets. They can do everything humans do, but are marginalized in society for being different. They're OK as entertainers, but don't let them share a cab with you.

The film's attempts to equate the puppets' mistreatment with actual racism are clumsy at best, and it's best not to think too hard about just how puppets are able to live, eat, have sex, and die. To delve down that hole is to face madness.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a private detective who was once the first puppet cop, but was kicked out of the force after a deadly shooting. When the cast members of a popular 90's puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang start turning up dead, Phil is forced join forces with his estranged partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to help find the killer.

McCarthy is perfect casting for this kind of role as she's always at her funniest when she's allowed to play it broad and let the expletives fly, which they most certainly do in this very, very R-rated movie. Indeed, the majority of the film's humor centers on seeing puppets doing lewd and illegal things. Sometimes I laughed because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew going in there was going to be a puppet sex scene to sit through, and I knew we'd see a puppet..."finish." But I didn't know it was going to last for five minutes and require the use of dozens of cans of white silly string. I had to laugh at the audacity.

But the film's biggest laughs actually come from in its smaller jokes, like Phillip's mutterings ("Looks like this mystery was brought to you by the letter P"), and its weirder moments, like Edwards discovering the inbred progeny of some first cousin puppets.

Maya Rudolph is also very funny as Phillips' human secretary Bubbles. She shares some screen time with Melissa McCarthy, and they garner more laughs in their ten minutes together than they did in the entirety of Life of the Party.

Director Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, has directed some good Muppet movies in the past, including The Muppet Christmas Carol, and he's been trying to make The Happytime Murders for almost a decade. (The behind-the-scenes moments during the end credits show just how much work was involved.) Maybe the delayed timing will work in his favor, with current audiences being too young to remember movies like Meet the Feebles and Team America: World Police that did the dirty puppet thing earlier and better.

Just as long as that new audience isn't too young. Because while The Happytime Murders didn't retroactively ruin my childhood, god bless the child who accidentally stumbles upon it while flipping cable channels. I hope their parents can afford the therapy.

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