Brian Henson directs a very raunchy, very funny film noir about why puppets – and puppeteers – deserve to be taken seriously.
Brian Henson, the son of The Muppets creator Jim Henson, has spent his entire career making puppet movies to entertain kids of all ages, and if his new film The Happytime Murders is any indication, he’s pretty mad about that. This raunchy comedy about a puppet detective and a human detective teaming up to solve a series of murders isn’t just a fantastical film noir in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Alien Nation, it’s a punch in the nose for everyone – inside and outside of the entertainment industry – who thinks puppeteering isn’t a serious art form.
In The Happytime Murders, a private detective named Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) picks up a new case, which leads him directly into a series of brutal puppet homicides. Someone is targeting the cast of The Happytime Gang, a once popular sitcom whose cast has hit hard times, and Phil has to team up with his old partner Det. Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case.
The murder mystery in The Happytime Murders, like the mystery in many film noirs, is just an excuse to poke around the edges of society and see which demons pop out of the shadows. The cute puppets in Brian Henson’s film reveal themselves to be porn addicts, drug addicts, plastic surgery addicts, sex addicts and worse. That’s the joke, and a lot of the time it’s funny. But it’s not just raunchy, it’s the point of the story.
The puppets in The Happytime Murders are second-class citizens, subject to marginalization wherever they go. Unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which presented a world in which cartoons were real but (almost) all of them were innocent, The Happytime Murders argues that puppets – and by extension, puppeteers – are complex, flawed, and even tragic people.
They may be entertaining but the attitude from audiences and studios alike is that they are disposable entertainment (literally, since hardly anyone bats an eye when they’re murdered), and that’s unjust and cruel. Literally and figuratively.
And so we get The Happytime Murders, an extreme reaction to the state of the mainstream puppet art form. Henson has this one opportunity to tell an adult-oriented puppet story that entertains but also has something meaningful to say. It’s heavy on sexual humor and violence because subtlety won’t make the point that puppets can be used to tell stories that aren’t family-friendly. It’s weird and crazy because there was no other option.
As a result, The Happytime Murders isn’t nuanced. It’s a blunt instrument. But it’s mostly effective. Bill Baretta and Melissa McCarthy are talented comedians who know how to make their sillier jokes feel like extensions of their characters and the (relatively absurd) reality in which they live. The film’s constant juxtaposition between serious sex and violence and cuddly puppet imagery is usually amusing, sometimes hilarious, and it only occasionally looks like Henson is trying way too hard to be offensive, at the sacrifice of the story and characters.
In short, Brian Henson didn’t knock it out of the park, but he made his point. The exceptional puppeteering and mostly clever screenplay make a statement, and more-or-less prove that the artists behind The Happytime Murders are skilled craftspeople whose talents aren’t being appreciated or utilized nearly enough. They are mature, even though their jokes are frequently immature as all hell.