Review: The Happytime Murders (2018)

Happytime-Murders

Who wears it better?: Black Bear Pictures/Henson Alternative

A thought kept coming to me while watching THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS: if not for the novelty of sweary Muppets, would this ever be considered good enough? I don’t know whether it’ll end up as one of the worst films of the year, but it definitely doesn’t deliver on anything beyond the most basic level.

Disgraced puppet cop-turned-PI Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) reluctantly re-teams with former partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to unmask a deranged puppet-killer.

I think it was Roger Ebert who used to say (I’m paraphrasing) that when reviewing movies you compare them with similar movies. As such, let’s look at other puppet movies, and to a much lesser extent, other buddy cop movies. All the Muppet movies worked on their own terms but were elevated with the addition of those characters. MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND are good literary adaptations, THE MUPPETS a good showbiz musical, MUPPETS MOST WANTED a good crime farce. They have string foundations before they even think of adding any felt.

Even compared to other buddy comedies, the writers really aren’t Shane Black, but then again not everyone could write KISS KISS, BANG BANG. They’re not even Gough & Miller, and something like SHANGHAI NOON was a considerably lower hurdle to clear.

The Happytime Murders is mostly just, look what we can make Muppets say and do! I mean, you can’t say that Brian Henson is playing it safe with the direction he’s taking his dad’s legacy (and the creation of a new production company to make more adult-oriented fare suggests more could be on the way) but he might have annoyed many fans of the Henson back catalogue.

I’ll admit I did get a few decent laughs, particularly at the film’s darker asides, like a puppet corpse being fished out of the river then wringed out like a flannel by the cops, the payoff to another gag involving a lot of screaming. But way too much of the humour relies on easy shortcuts, on references to other movies that are too telegraphed (she’s wearing a short white dress in a police interrogation room, I wonder how she’ll manipulate the situation?).

Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks are clearly having the most fun, and get the most memorable moments out of the human characters, but we never really get to know anyone outside the lead pairing, and neither of them are all that interesting. Most of the Happytime gang and all Edwards’ police colleagues barely get namechecked, let alone anything to do.

The best thing about The Happytime Murders is the end credits, not just because it means it’s all over but because the outtakes reel features a glimpse at how the extremely talented puppeteers achieved what they did. The film might prompt the odd smile, but there really isn’t enough to recommend it. If you really fancy a raunchy puppet comedy, just watch Peter Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES; it’s darker, wittier and more daring. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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