By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta and Joel McHale
Directed by Brian Henson
Written by Todd Berger
See what I did there? In truth, though, you don’t need to have seen and enjoyed Peter Jackson’s nearly three-decade-old perverted-puppet pic MEET THE FEEBLES to quickly discern what’s missing in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. The idea to do a movie about filthy felt characters was the easy part; the challenge was to come up with more than just enough ideas to fill the trailer, and the HAPPYTIME gang barely thought of that many.
THE HAPPYTIME GANG is also the name of a sitcom that was once a big hit in the world of MURDERS, where humans and puppets uneasily co-exist, the latter treated as second-class citizens. Amidst their seedy Hollywood milieu, disgraced puppet cop Phil Philips (no relation, apparently, to AMERICAN IDOL winner Phillip Phillips, and voiced by Bill Barretta), now working as a PI, stumbles upon the case of his life after a beautiful puppet dame, Sandra (Dorien Davies) hires him to find out who’s been blackmailing her. The trail leads to a porno shop where Philips is the only survivor of a shotgun massacre, preceded by a glimpse of extremely bizarre sex between a cow and an octopus. Those who come to this film for perversion and exploding heads among the toy set should get their fill during this sequence, because true raunch and mayhem are in limited supply thereafter.
Philips soon discovers that someone is bumping off the HAPPYTIME GANG cast, a crime spree that hits home for him since one of the ensemble is his own estranged brother. The premise holds so many possibilities to take off into the outrageous, but bafflingly, the people behind HAPPYTIME MURDERS (led by director and Muppets veteran Brian Henson and scriptwriter Todd Berger) apparently decided that instead of creative intrigue or any sense of world-building in the puppet milieu, the way to go was a tired mix of PI-flick and mismatched-cop tropes. Philips delivers a lot of generic hardboiled narration, and is reteamed with a former human partner (Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards) who now disdains him, resulting in a lot of generic trash-talking banter. In both cases, the overriding inspiration behind the dialogue is that if one f-bomb is funny, half a dozen will obviously be funnier (SPOILER ALERT: they’re not). With no interesting or funny ideas about how humans and puppets might interact, the movie instead features too many scenes involving flesh-and-blood stereotypes like Philips’ long-suffering secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), his and Edwards’ no-nonsense African-American boss on the force, Lt. Banning (Leslie David Baker), a hard-ass FBI agent (Joel McHale), etc.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is both a failure of imagination and a failure of nerve. Instead of truly digging into what puppets might get up to if they were alive and as scheming, corrupt and deviant as people, the movie keeps everything on a junior-high-schooler level of humor, and not very bright junior-high-schoolers at that. Either one of the TED comedies (likely the true inspiration behind this film’s existence) gives its bad-behaving bear more personality and wit in any five-minute stretch than any of the puppets demonstrate here. Barretta, who has voiced Pepe the Prawn, the Swedish Chef and other Muppets over the last decade, has just the right world-weary delivery as Philips, but is given little that’s funny or interesting to say, and while McCarthy interacts believably with her puppet co-stars, she’s similarly at a loss to either elevate the material or contribute more than the basest improv.
If THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS fails to either outrage or amuse, it doesn’t work on a basic storytelling level either. Anyone who has ever watched a thriller before will see through the “mystery” very quickly, many scenes feel like padding to get the movie to feature length—and even then, the end credits have to scroll verrrrrry slooooowly to get it over 90 minutes. Intercut with some of those credits are behind-the-scenes moments in which the puppet performers goof their lines or break the fourth wall, suggesting what could have been a much more successful approach to this project. A film-within-a-film in which randy, amoral puppets come to life and rebel against the goody-goody kids’ flick they’re making could have had real possibilities—certainly more than the barrage of unembellished clichés and tiresome profanity we get in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS.