If you missed The Happytime Murders in theaters last year, you weren’t alone. The adult-oriented, R-rated, film noir puppet movie from Brian Henson whiffed at the box office, taking in a little over $27.5 million against a reported $40 million budget. Here’s hoping the bizarro hybrid of live-action puppeteering and traditional human performances finds a second chance to succeed in the home video market because there’s some good stuff hidden away under an unfortunate amount of “rotten cotton.”
Strangely enough, you’d think that landing Melissa McCarthy in the lead would have been enough for The Happytime Murders to land a bigger box office, but it might just be her involvement that had people turning out to the theaters at all. It’s a testament to her comedic timing and ability to improv that she was able to act opposite a cast composed primarily of felt and fluff, not to take anything away from the talented and hardworking puppeteers literally sweating away behind (and often beneath) the scenes. And alhough Bill Barretta doesn’t get any screentime per se as the voice and puppeteer of Phil Phillips, he turns in one helluva noir performance in a parody that’s ratcheted up to 11. That’s the saving grace of The Happytime Murders, a movie that’s a better fit for college dorms after a bar crawl than it is a Saturday afternoon at the movie theater.
For my full review of the feature, check it out here. I was hoping that the eventual Blu-ray release would dig deep into the puppet side of the production, and while I wasn’t disappointed by the bonus features, they didn’t quite go as deep as I would have wanted. Still, if you want to get to know the puppets better, this is your best option short of enrolling in a puppetry class. My extensive review of the Blu-ray’s bonus material follows below:
- Puppet Poachers – A puppet poacher brings a black market dealer 70-some puppet feet, “straight from Tijuana.” Phil takes them both down with extreme prejudice. It’s an extended badass scene for Phil, but probably didn’t fit with the rest tonally. In the feature commentary, Henson reveals that the scene was deemed too long and not funny enough for the final cut.
- Meet Jenny – Phil picks up Jenny at work; apparently she gave him the tip about the poacher, so this is him following up with her after taking care of them.
- Meet Edwards – Edwards shows up at a crime scene and gets a hot dog from a street vendor, but is accosted by a puppet hot dog protesting against eating his kind. Edwards is following up on Phil’s vigilante spree, so that’s why it was cut apparently, but there’s some funny content from a pair of LAPD cops played by Ryan Gaul and Jimmy O. Yang.
- Larry’s Funeral – Extended scene just before the funeral and at the ceremony itself where Phil’s brother Larry is interred in “the hottest tub in town.”
- Ronovan Poisoned – Phil’s in lockup with a pair of criminals. Meanwhile, Ronovan Scargle makes a $10 million deal with Sandra, but she poisons him and her henchmen take the money and contracts. Bubbles was apparently in the lobby the whole time and watched them all walk out together, which explains how she knew what was going on in the main continuity.
- Jenny’s Arrest – An extended scene of Jenny getting taken away while Edwards, Bubbles, and Phil look on.
Gag Reel (~3 minutes)
- Short but funny series of outtakes showing off the puppet performers’ ability to improv
Line-o-rama (~3 minutes)
- Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Melissa McCarthy, and puppet performers ad libbing some ridiculous lines in scenes.
Virtual Environments (~2 minutes)
- Behind-the-scenes featurette of the various scenes throughout the movie, like the parking garage, Larry’s apartment, the airport terminal, and more. Lots of green screen and performers in green suits here, showing just how far the production team had to go to pull off the live-action puppet performances. The rest is filled in by traditional practical and virtual effects teams.
Avatar Demo (~2 minutes)
- VFX Supervisor Sam Nicholson talks about opening up the movie in a unique way by designing a bunch of puppet avatars to use, really opening the movie up. They used mo-cap as stand-ins for the eventual puppet performances to start. These movement files were then modified to move like puppets, under Brian Henson’s direction.
- There’s a discussion of the felt and fabric of the puppets and how the teams had to blend the real and virtual puppets, with a specific focus on these materials.
VFX Breakdown (~4 minutes)
- Just a montage of layered shots revealing how the VFX team took practical and virtual scenes and married them together. It’s a cool peek behind the scenes, but there’s no real technical walkthrough here, which is a shame.
Feature Commentary with Director Brian Henson and Bill Barretta
- “Henson Alternative” = not appropriate for children.
- Henson wanted to make this version of L.A. “like New York in the 70s,” playing up the prejudice between humans and puppets.
- Phil throwing the cigarette from the car in the beginning wasn’t a trick shot, but an actual perfect toss from Bill Barretta lying on the floor of the car.
- Henson talks about mixing digital and practical puppets throughout the movie, which you can see in the other featurettes.
- Voiceover, like a film noir trope, was originally done and then removed, before being added back in.
- For the Jacuzzi scene, the performer was under the floor and behind the hot tub with his arms through a rubber-gloved hole to perform Larry. For the following Jacuzzi fight between Phil and Edwards, Barretta had to be in a wetsuit under the water to perform as Phil.
- McCarthy snorting the sugar at the puppet party was done with an old practical puppet trick; they snaked a tube down her sleeve and sucked the sugar up through it.
- The full shot of Phil and Sandra in his office was performed by six puppeteers who all had to be digitally erased. And Phil’s “release” took three cans of Silly String.
- Henson was directing the scene on Santa Monica beach but was also in a prop garbage can to perform as the crab. Someone walked by and tossed a beer into the trash and it spilled all over Henson.
- It was Elizabeth Banks’ idea to use a carrot peeler for her stage show. She ended up cutting her finger during the performance, which is why she has a bandaid on it in the scene where she talks to Phil.
- For the scene where little Sandra’s father gets killed by a stray bullet, they held his puppet up by strings and then just dropped them to get him to fall correctly.
- Sometimes they’ll change the appearance of puppets in order to help them convey emotion more easily. Normally, in this world, the puppets are pretty simplistic by design.
The Sandra puppet actually had to have a “bit of female anatomy” under her skirt for the Basic Instinct scene, otherwise is just looked like she was wearing “furry purple underpants.”
- Phil’s puppet had a rig where a vacuum-like device could draw down an entire cigarette and then blow all the smoke back out.
- Originally, the pilot and co-pilot were supposed to come out of the cockpit when Edwards goes onto the plane, but it was cut due to timing.
- They created a special rig for Sandra to drop down out of the ceiling of the airplane and wrap her legs around Edwards’ neck. McCarthy had to be in just the right spot for it to work.
- In a different ending, Phil gave back his badge that had just been returned to him, saying he’d rather be on the street doing things his way. They went with the theatrical ending in order to give Phil a more satisfying ending.
- Henson says that this version of the movie was definitely funnier, but it’s also a shorter and less character-driven story than previous versions.