THE STORY - In the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, two clashing detectives -- one human and the other a puppet -- must work together to solve the brutal murders of former cast members of a beloved puppet TV show.
THE CAST - Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale & Elizabeth Banks
THE TEAM - Brian Henson (Director) & Todd Berger (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME - 91 Minutes
THE GOOD - A technical marvel created by some of the foremost puppeteers of our time.
THE BAD - Combines a shallow and uninteresting plot with an endless stream of repetitive raunchy jokes and a mediocre script.
THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None
THE FINAL SCORE - 2/10
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By Kt Schaefer
Raunchy puppets are not a new idea, but 2018’s “The Happytime Murders” aims to set a new standard in the genre with its level of outrageous bawdy humor and technical mastery. Directed by Brian Henson for an offshoot of The Jim Henson Company called, appropriately enough, Henson Alternative, the film's bona fides guaranteed that it would have all the polish and excellent puppetry skills that his studio is known for, but that doesn’t save it from a predictable story and lackluster premise.
Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) used to be a cop, the first-and-last puppet cop in Los Angeles. After he missed a crucial shot attempting to save his partner, Phil was kicked off the force and has been reduced to working as a private investigator for puppets in a seedy part of town. But when he is drawn into a series of murders that revolve around the cast of his brother’s old TV show, The Happytime Gang, he is pulled back onto the force and paired with his old partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). While they are initially at odds, as the two work together to solve the crime they find themselves coming to terms with their troubled past.
The main plot is a fairly predictable hardboiled detective/buddy cop story that slowly reveals its characters to be flawed but ultimately likable people. However, it doesn’t spend a whole lot of screen time unraveling the mystery. Instead, it devotes that time to showing puppets doing drugs, having sex, making freaky porn and other things that could be considered shocking to those who are only familiar with puppets as entertainment for kids. It also sets up the premise that humans consider puppets to be a second class and discriminate against them freely but other than acting as the occasional force to move the plot along, that aspect of the world is never developed. In fact, the humans in the story, other than Melissa McCarthy’s character, mostly act as background figures compared to the puppet antics.
It must be said that the technical aspects of bringing the film into existence are all masterfully done. The puppetry is spectacular and even though the audience knows that there are real people behind the fuzzy puppets, it looks jarringly realistic even during the most ridiculous scenes. With some of the biggest names in puppeteering, including Kevin Clash the person behind Elmo, none of that is surprising, but it does contrast unpleasantly with the human actors. Melissa McCarthy returns to her sassy foul-mouthed woman schtick with only middling success and not even the glorious Maya Rudolph can make the tired dialogue feel interesting.
The biggest problem with “The Happytime Murders” is that it only seems to be concerned with making raunchy jokes about puppets behaving badly and builds everything else around that. There isn’t nearly enough substance to sustain 90 minutes of a movie and before long it all begins to feel a bit repetitive. The last 15 minutes of the movie attempts to cram in twist or two but it is too little too late by that point and only serves as verification that what little story they tried to include was badly developed. Brian Henson seems to have done his best with Todd Bergs script but “The Happytime Murders” would have been better served with a more interesting story even if it meant they had to lose a few of the jokes.