'The Happytime Murders' Review: What Happens When Puppets Stop Being Polite and Start Getting Real
By John Boone
The good people behind Sesame Street so feared that the R-rated puppet comedy, The Happytime Murders, would tarnish their good name -- via the latter's promotional tagline, "No Sesame, All Street" -- that they sued. (The properties share DNA in director Brian Henson, who previously helmed The Muppets Christmas Carol and Treasure Island and is the son of Jim Henson, who helped create Sesame Street.) In the lawsuit, according to The Wrap, they took offense to the "explicit, profane, drug-using, misogynistic, violent, copulating, and even ejaculating puppets."
Yes, the puppets in Happytime Murders snort sugar like cocaine and make jokes about boners. They have sex -- one nymphomaniac puppet proclaims herself a "sexual I'ma" as in, "If I'ma get next to it, I'ma gonna f**k it" -- and when the puppets, ahem, finish, it's silly string. It probably wasn't worth the effort (or legal fees), though, as Happytime Murders doesn't make enough of an impact to even ding Sesame Street's illustrious legacy. It's easiest to just let the movie make its dick jokes and keep it pushing.
(Anyway, for as edgy as the movie thinks itself with its horny, cursing puppets, it also relies heavily on "Losers say what?" jokes. It's not just a one-off, either, but a full-on running gag. Imagine that! "Losers say what?" jokes in the year 2018.)
The Happytime Murders takes place in a world where humans and puppets co-exist, though not so peacefully. Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta, the iconic voice of Muppets like Rowlf the Dog and The Swedish Chef) was once the first puppet police officer, before he was unceremoniously kicked off the force. Now working as a private eye, Phil's latest case has him reteaming up with his one-time partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to solve a murder mystery: Who is killing off the former cast members of the hit TV series The Happytime Gang?
Beyond the various ways the puppets are offed -- one gets the stuffing shot out of him, another meets death by way of a French bulldog -- there isn't enough to this gimmick to sustain an entire movie. I suppose the thought is that a human talking to a puppet is instinctively silly, but after a while, I couldn't figure out what the movie was achieving with puppets. It's certainly not worth scratching at the surface of the allegory of puppets being treated as second-class citizens, being discriminated against by police, of protesting with signs that read "Protect Our Rights!" and "Felt Is Beautiful!" I'm thankful, at least, that Happytime Murders stops short of "Felt Lives Matter."
Helping matters immensely is McCarthy, forever committed in the service of laughter. Pairing her opposite a puppet has the upshot of subduing her comedy stylings, in a good way: Where she can sometimes go off the rails when she's the craziest presence onscreen (as in Tammy), McCarthy plays something closer to the straight man here, although she is of course still given ample opportunities to ad-lib an eviscerating punchline and showcase her gung-ho physicality. Maya Rudolph, playing Phil's squeaky secretary, Bubbles, is another highlight. (Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, doesn't get much to do as actress turned stripper Jenny, except show off her New Yawk accent.)
The Happytime Murders is best during the too-short stretch when McCarthy and Rudolph share the screen. Within a movie that can feel like it's trying so very hard to be explicit, to be profane, to even have ejaculating puppets, their chemistry is easy, and it is a genuine blast watching those two gas each other up -- no puppets or strings required.