Back in 2004, South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone pulled the strings of the puppet action-comedy Team America: World Police. That movie may have achieved cult-classic status in the nearly 15 years since, but it was not so warmly received at the time: The late Roger Ebert gave it 1 out of 4 stars, saying “The plot seems like a collision at the screenplay factory between several half-baked world-in-crisis movies,” and Empire’s Kim Newman said, “Team America lacks the sweetness that diluted earlier Parker-Stone projects, while its nihilism about world politics is sometimes hard to take.” Today, Brian Henson‘s darkly comedic puppet crime-comedy The Happytime Murders is facing much stronger critical takedowns, but in time I think this absurdist tale might just find a cult following of its own.
The Happytime Murders has had a long road to release having been in various stages of development and production since 2008. You would think that in that time period Todd Berger‘s script would have evolved beyond the bare-bones riff on film noir tropes and detective tales, but sadly it has not. It simply checks the boxes: Hard-Nosed Cop Turned Private Eye, Disgruntled Former Police Partner, Girl Friday, Femme Fatale, Overworked and Overtired Police Lieutenant, and Clueless FBI Agent. They’re all here, and they’re mostly human. But the saving grace of The Happytime Murders is in the puppet characters themselves. If you can enjoy the simple absurdity of puppet performers acting opposite live-action counterparts for 90 minutes, you’ll have a better time than many of the critics who were apparently hoping for a puppet-styled second coming of Chinatown.
The Happytime Murders takes place in a not-so-glitzy nor glamorous area of Los Angeles, in a world where puppets and humans co-exist but the felt-skinned, fluff-stuffed folks are second-class citizens. There’s a weak throughline that treats puppets as minorities, complete with plenty of race-tinged jokes–the lead’s brother, a successful sitcom star, has his skin bleached and his nose and chin “corrected” to look more human; there’s a dialogue exchange about whether it’s okay to comment on the “blueness” of a puppet’s skin, etc.–but it’s ultimately abandoned after only a surface exploration for easy jokes. Slightly stronger here is the concept that humans neither trust puppets nor respect them, simply seeing them as things to be kicked around, used, or laughed at. Anchoring that idea is the fact that Phil (Bill Barretta) was the police force’s first puppet cop, an ace shooter whose one grave mistake cost him his job, his partnership, and forever prevented any other puppet from joining the force.
From there, if you’ve seen a noir detective film, you can guess how it all plays out: Down-on-his-luck Phil takes a case from a hyper-sexual, nymphomaniac client and, while running down leads, he soon finds himself at the center of a murder plot, one that sees the stars of the puppet sitcom “The Happytime Gang” being gunned down or blown up, one by one. Phil gets wrapped up in this new case where he crosses paths with many faces from his past, human and puppet alike. He’s paired up with former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), pays a visit to former flame Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) and even reconnects with his estranged brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid); the one constant here is Phil’s dedicated secretary/assistant, Bubbles, played fantastically well by Maya Rudolph. That plot setup suffices for giving you what you need to solve the case; it’s a weak script that relies on the versatile power of the word “fuck” and the occasional happy accident of on-set improv. I’m sorry to say there are no real twists, turns, or surprises when it comes to the detective story itself, but where The Happytime Murders stands out is with its puppet pedigree.
Honestly, I would have loved to see a version of The Happytime Murders without any humans, or maybe with one fish-out-of-water human a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The human characters are another weak link here and they’re not served well by the script either. Edwards has a very specific puppetized take on addiction that plays fine enough for laughs but is an idea that’s superficially executed at best. Joel McHale‘s dumb-as-a-post FBI agent is basically a punching bag for easy layup jokes from the blue-collar detectives. (Speaking of punching bags, at one point Phil finds himself on the receiving end of a beating by two heavies and his response is hilarious; this is the kind of absurdist humor that works really well in the film, it’s just overshadowed by the half-baked script.)
The real delight of The Happytime Murders is in seeing the incredibly creative, detailed, and varied puppets on display from the super-talented and experienced production team. Sadly, most of these supporting cast puppets get a few seconds of screentime before the movie moves on to the next scene. Hundreds of man-hours of work go by in a blink without much to show for it. There are some hero shots: A bodybuilding puppet on the Santa Monica beach, the slobbering Junkyard dog and the gang of thugs and criminals, the bizarro design of Goofer, and the bonkers one-off characters that pop up for a hilarious one-liner and are never seen again. And once you factor in the idea that the production team, many of whom have spent years with the more family-friendly Muppets and Sesame Street characters, are venting some creative frustrations through dark humor and subversion of traditional puppet storytelling, The Happytime Murders becomes a bit more palatable. (And if you stick around for the credits, you’ll see the talented team at work bringing the puppets to life in ridiculous body-contorting poses that are funnier than many of the movie’s jokes themselves.)
The Happytime Murders may not resonate with all audiences but its destined to become a dorm room classic. It’s A+ puppetry is held back by a D-level script, but for 90 minutes of puppet absurdity, it’s worth a watch.