THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Brian Henson

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, Cynthy Wu, Ben Falcone, voices of Bill Barretta, Dorien Davis.

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It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to produce a low brow, raunchy, ribald adults-only Muppets rip-off. Somewhat surprisingly the dull and largely unfunny The Happytime Murders actually comes from Brian Henson, the son of the late Jim Henson, the creator of the more family friendly Muppets and Sesame Street. This is the first film from the Henson Company’s new venture, the adult themes Henson Alternative. But with its disastrous reception both critically and at the box office, The Happytime Murders is also likely to be their last venture.

The film is set in Los Angeles, where Muppets live and work alongside humans, although most Muppets are still treated like second class citizens. Private investigator Phil Phillips (voiced by veteran Muppets puppeteer Bill Barretta) is a former detective, the only moppet employed by the LAPD, until an incident derailed his career. He now works the seedy mean streets and back alleys of LA, trying to keep the Muppet population safe. He is engaged by a smooth-talking Sandra Jakoby (voiced in sultry fashion by Dorien Davis, who is best known for playing Lulu the purple panda on Jim Henson’s Word Party, etc) to find out who is blackmailing her. That case takes a back seat though when it seems that a vicious serial killer is targeting the former cast members of a briefly popular 80s children’s television show The Happytime Gang. Phillips is reluctantly forced to team up with his former human partner detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to catch the killer. But the pair seem to spend as much time bickering and trading putdowns as they do working the case.

The messy script from Todd Berger (It’s A Disaster, etc) and first-time feature writer Dee Austen Robertson plays with the usual tropes of the gritty film noir genre – the hard-boiled dialogue, the tough private eye, the femme fatale, etc – for laughs, mixed with a succession of tired gross out humour, scatological humour, bodily functions and tasteless moments that push the envelope. The Muppets here are the antithesis of Henson senior’s witty and family friendly characters – here the perverted puppets have sex, smoke, snort cocaine and swear profusely – and the film is certainly not for the easily offended.

Along with lots of tv work, Henson junior had previously directed films like The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1982 and Muppet Treasure Island in 1996, and he knows the Muppet world inside out, so how could he get it so wrong? Here his direction has a scattergun approach, and he throws everything at the screen. Admittedly, some of it does stick. Henson’s pacing is uneven, and there are long pauses after many of the jokes, much like a stage production, as if encouraging the audience to laugh. The puppets are visually quite ugly, but the integration of the animatronics and puppeteering work is well done though.

The Happytime Murders has been something of a troubled production though, having undergone numerous cast changes and script changes in its ten-year development period. The result is something of a misguided mess, and this is yet another tiresome, lacklustre comedy and clunky failure for McCarthy, whose career seems on a downward trajectory at the moment. She struggles with the material here and at times looks extremely uncomfortable playing yet another variation on her familiar screen persona – sassy, loudmouthed and annoying.

The human cast here includes Maya Rudolph, who is great as Bubbles, Phillips’ loyal, overly protective and lovelorn human secretary. And she is the best thing here; Elizabeth Banks is wasted; Joel McHale (Community, etc) and Leslie David Baker (from the US version of tv sitcom The Office, etc) , as Edwards’ frustrated boss Lt Banning, a cliched character.

Some of the off-colour humour and the use of puppets recalls a couple of the early films from Peter Jackson (Meet The Feebles, etc), which were more fun, Parker and Stone’s Team America: World Police, and the raunchy stage show Avenue Q, which mixed puppets and humans, or even the foul mouthed talking toy bear that was Ted. All of those films were superior to this crass and laboured effort. Even with a relatively brief 90-minute running time, The Happytime Murders outstays its welcome.

★☆

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