Pain. Sticky, sticky pain. A hangnail. Teeth chewing on aluminum foil. A thorn pressed into the bottom of a bare foot and removed with a pair of rusty pliers. A cup full of salt and lemon juice poured into a fresh paper cut. Biting into freshly cooked venison and getting a mouth full of buckshot. These are unpleasant things—yet, none of them are as unpleasant as watching “The Happytime Murders.” Mostly because all aforementioned inconveniences only last a few minutes.
This movie will take 90 minutes of life viewers will wish they could get back.
The idea of an R-rated puppet movie is highly appealing to me. I’m a fan of Peter Jackson’s wild and warped “Meet the Feebles.” Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s madcap marionette movie “Team America: World Police” is one of the funniest experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. “The Happytime Murders” never comes close to the genius of those films. In fact, it doesn’t even match the amazing world-building puppet-based insanity of shows like “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared” or “Sifl and Olly.” It is a squandered opportunity—like going out to eat on your cheat day and having a salad.
Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a grizzled private dick who used to be one of the city’s best policemen—the only puppet ever to earn that honor. In this world, puppets are real and serve as a lazy allegory for minorities and the disenfranchised. Real people see little value in puppets outside of their obvious entertainment. Puppets are bullied, beaten and abused by their human tormenters. They’re just trying to be warm and fuzzy in a cold, cold world.
Phil gets dragged back into his old life when a series of murders points to the cast of a hugely popular puppet TV show, “The Happytime Gang.” Ever wanted to watch puppets get horribly murdered? Some of the most disturbing scenes in the film involve watching adorable puppets being mauled to death by dogs or having their fluff-filled heads dispatched with shotguns. Unfortunately, every gag in the movie feels flatly forced.
The manic, insane nature of “The Happytime Murders” should have made this, at worst, a passable experience. However, everything seems pointlessly over-the-top. Want to see a puppet have an orgasm? It’s there, and it might produce a chuckle. Then, when it continues to happen for another minute, folks will cringe in their seats—not from the ballsiness of the moment but from the dead horse being beaten so brutally. Speaking of dead horses, Melissa McCarthy co-stars as the world’s loudest police detective.
“The Happytime Murders” story is a by-the-numbers bit of writing and every puppet pun or gag feels like it could have been conceived by a 12-year-old puffing on his first joint while watching “Sesame Street.” There’s nothing intelligent happening, which would be fine if there was something funny happening. It’s not like “Caddyshack” requires a Mensa membership, but if filmmakers aren’t going to bring anything nuanced to the concept, they at least could provide the yukkity yuks.
Sadly, director Brian Henson brought one joke to this party, and he milks it harder than an octopus working at a dairy farm. It’s a basic story done more effectively and with actual laughs in the early 2000s with Greg the Bunny. “The Happytime Murders” is a turgid and tired product desperately in need of a writer who understands he can’t make an R-rated movie with jokes aimed at 10-year-olds.
The target demographic would seem to be kids with negligent parents who would let them watch this unbridled nightmare of a feature film.
Basically, it’s an unoriginal, unfunny movie that misses so many wonderful opportunities. It’s like they were trying to make a puppet version of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” but didn’t understand the mechanics of what made that movie work. It wasn’t just the film had all these great cartoon characters and sight gags; it was a handful of really well-developed characters in the form of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) and Roger Rabbit. Melissa McCarthy can be funny, but she never really morphs into a fully realized character. She’s just riffing, screaming and improvising into a performance that’s as forced as the rest of the movie.
We can shelve “The Happytime Murders” next to stinkers like “Theodore Rex” as a high-concept idea that’s dead on arrival.