Review: 'Happytime Murders' shoots for dark puppet humor but misses its mark



It’s not easy bein’ green—especially in the seedy Muppet underbelly of Brian Henson’s Happytime Murders.

More Chinatown than Sesame Street, the shady puppet folk of this alternate Los Angeles would rather get high and shoot you than sing a song about the alphabet. And while that promises tons of comedic potential, the execution does not live up to the premise.

Our Jake Gittes stand-in is a puppet named Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta), ex-cop turned private investigator. After a mysterious puppet-woman hires him to find her blackmailer, Phil stumbles into a porn shop murder spree and subsequently runs into his old partner from the LAPD, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). The two don’t like each other a whole lot, but as the body count piles up, they’re forced to work together to stop a serial killer.

This doesn’t sound like your typical Muppet movie plot, but with a Henson at the helm – Brian Henson, Jim's son -- there’s a certain authenticity present throughout Happytime Murders. From a technical standpoint, it’s fascinating to see how far things have come since the days of Sam and Friends, Jim Henson's very first Muppets-type show which debuted in 1955. And there’s something brave about taking such a beloved property (one most associated with children’s entertainment) and making an R-rated feature. The worry is just how long the schtick—puppets doing and saying things Kermit the Frog never, ever would—can hold our attention and keep us laughing.

As anyone who has seen Avenue Q can attest, it can be done well. But hearing a puppet say “fuck” doesn't feel as fresh or edgy as it did a couple decades ago. And while there are a few true, laugh-out-loud moments (centered on tentacle porn, ejaculation, and incest, just to give you a feel), the good jokes come few and far between. The noir backdrop simply isn’t tricky or interesting enough to entertain on its own.

There’s quite a bit of talent present, but it’s mostly underutilized. McCarthy does her usual routine but it’s inhibited by her straight man cop side. Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, and Joel McHale all make appearances as an LAPD lieutenant, old flame, and FBI agent respectively, but the movie barely leverages their chops. Even the ever-funny Maya Rudolph is sort of bland as Phil's assistant Bubbles. The end result is an hour and a half of meh.

It’s a shame Happytime Murders turned out pretty forgettable. Here’s hoping it doesn’t close the door on future R-rated outings in the broader Muppetverse.