By Jack Dignan
Originally Published on Salty Popcorn
The number of films I’ve seen with puppet sex scenes is becoming alarmingly high. My first encounter was during a premature exposure to the CHUCKY films, where the series took an unexpected and, quite frankly, unwelcome turn with BRIDE OF CHUCKY. Throw a little TEAM AMERICA in the mix, sprinkle it with a bit of ANOMALISA, and now, after spanning a number of years, we’ve arrived at THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. These aren’t the same puppets you used to love on the television when you were a kid. They’ve moved beyond their kiddy ways, and they’ve earned an MA15+ classification to boot.
Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) was once a highly regarded puppet cop, working side by side with his partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), but after a case gone wrong, Phil lost it all. Years later, after the two went their separate ways, Phil’s still haunted by what went wrong, but just as life seems to hit a new low, a new case arrives that reunites him and his estranged partner into a world of crime, sex, and murder, all involving puppets. The two will have to put aside their differences if there’s any chance of catching LA’s latest puppet killer.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ve seen this before. The central plot isn’t something mind-bogglingly original or all that creative, with the central crux being the fact that most of the characters are puppets. It’s an idea I can certainly get behind. An extreme, adult story of puppets gone wild, with even more innuendos than you can possibly imagine. Heck, they don’t even hold back. If you’ve seen the trailer you know what I’m talking about. An extended scene of puppet ejaculation is, without a doubt, the funniest moment in the film. Screenwriter Todd Berger goes all in with the ridiculousness of the concept, and his screenplay is structurally impressive, but unfortunately, it struggles to go beyond a funny premise.
If you strip away the puppet element and just look at what this narrative has to offer, it’s a formulaic detective story with forced and predictable character arcs we’ve seen replicated in several plots before. There’s nothing new. A lot of it feels underdeveloped, with third act tie-ups making little sense. Characters are able to prove things in the eyes of the law with literally zero evidence, a complete turn-around from earlier scenes where the characters were being questioned about their trustworthiness. Not even the mystery at hand is all that mysterious. It’s just puppets dying until eventually the killer is found.
The most enjoyable moments derive from the first act, simply because the shock value of this premise hasn’t worn off yet. Granted, the jokes still aren’t great, but there’s more that land at the start than anywhere else in this mercifully short film. Melissa McCarthy is just as great as ever, even if she’s managed to play the same role for a number of years now. She tries to make her role work, but everything feels so repetitive and stretched out that it just falls flat. There’s a half hearted attempt at tying this film into equality in the workplace, but aside from a few of the same scenes repeated over and over, it never really works.
If I have to give this film props for anything though, it’s the impressive use of puppetry. Director Brian Henson comes from a background of early MUPPETS films, and the puppeteer crew he’s brought along for the ride give it their all. There are so many characters to work with here, placed into so many ridiculous situations, and yet it’s never wonky or awry. An end credit montage/music video shows the levels of difficulty behind bringing these little fellas to life, and the work is astonishing. It’s this behind the scenes credit sequence, with the cast and crew having the time of their lives, that’s honestly the most enjoyable element of the movie. Their fun is infectious.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is competently produced, armed with an a-list cast who all try their best, but there’s only so far the film’s central joke can be taken before the humour wares off. Elizabeth Banks and Maya Rudolph are fun additions, but neither are given enough screen time. There’s only so many times I can sit through a puppet asking if a character wants a blow job, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS passed that threshold half an hour in.
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