December 7, 2018
Box Office $20.71 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material.
Stars Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Joel McHale, Michael McDonald.
Voices of Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Drew Massey.
The Happytime Murders continues the glorious tradition of using the tropes of children’s programming as the basis for subversive adult entertainment.
The film is set in a world best described as “Muppets-adjacent,” where felt-skinned puppets are alive and second-class citizens of a society in which humans are pretty openly racist toward them. Some of the puppets end up as performers in movies and TV shows for kids, and when they’re off camera they have to deal with the harsh realities of life like everyone else.
The story involves a puppet named Phil (Bill Barretta), an ex-cop now working as a private investigator. He gets roped into a case involving the former members of a TV show called “The Happytime Gang” getting killed one at a time, and the police ask him to help his former partner (Melissa McCarthy) figure out who’s behind it.
The Happytime Murders could be considered something of a puppet version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit if not for a couple of factors. First, all the puppet characters are generic and created just for this film. Seeing characters from other franchises interact could have helped build the world and establish a sense of nostalgia to better connect audiences to the story. To that end, it’s not surprising that other studios would be reluctant to lend their IP to the project, which owes a lot to the second factor — the film is completely filthy.
Puppets do drugs. Puppets engage in dangerous sex acts. Puppets get ripped apart by dogs and get their heads blown apart by shotguns, leaving fluffy cotton entrails everywhere. An then there’s the excessive use of silly string. It’s pretty much everything you suspected goes on in the after hours of “Sesame Street” but were afraid to ask.
In fact, the film was the basis of an unsuccessful lawsuit from the Sesame Workshop for its tagline of “No Sesame. All Street,” which is still boldly emblazoned on the DVD and Blu-ray box art. But the fact that the puppets are basically off-brand Muppets is no coincidence.
The film’s director is Brian Henson, son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson. In a commentary on the Blu-ray, Brian helpfully points out that he made sure to include a “Henson Alternative” production banner at the beginning of The Happytime Murders to signal that this movie really isn’t for children. Not that the trailers or any of the marketing wouldn’t have given that away.
The notion of living puppets scheming to commit mayhem brings to mind the “Smile Time” episode from Joss Whedon’s vampire drama “Angel,” which featured several demonic puppets stealing the life force from children. Unsurprisingly, many of the episode’s puppets were realized with the help of a number of Jim Henson Co. puppeteers, including some who worked on this movie.
I also have a feeling that the foul-mouthed Stinky the Grump from the famous “Chappelle’s Show” “Kneehigh Park” sketch would be quite at home in the world of The Happytime Murders as well.
But this isn’t a five-minute sketch. Happytime Murders doubles down on the concept of puppets doing inappropriate things, to the point where it doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond that. Most scenes are structured on the idea of a puppet doing something crude and unexpected, allowing the movie to coast on the juxtaposition of something associated with children acting in an adult way. Which isn’t to say it isn’t entertaining. The film offers a number of clever observations about a hypothetical puppet society, and there are even moments that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the constancy of it is just a bit draining, and the pace of the puppetry must have worn out the filmmakers too given how the story evolves into a lengthy stretch focusing on a couple of the human characters trying to solve the mystery on their own.
More impressive is the film’s visual style, and the extent of the visual effects work involved may surprise some viewers. According to some of the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes material, there were a fair amount of puppeteers crouched just off camera to animate the characters. But there is also a lot of CGI involved, too. The disc offers a two-minute featurette about how the filmmakers used virtual environments to gain better control over the action.
More illuminating is a nearly three-minute video about how the visual effects team created a lot of the “puppets” from CGI to begin with. Some might see it as cheating, I suppose, but their work in this regard is amazing, as the level of detail in the texture of the fabric seems completely authentic. At first blush I just assumed many of the scenes of puppets walking around in full view of the camera were done with little people in costumes, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to see how they really did it.
A fuller overview of the visual effects work is on display in a four-minute montage video that shows several scenes at different stages of development.
In addition to the aforementioned audio commentary, in which director Henson is joined by puppeteer/voice actor Barretta, the Blu-ray also includes a three-minute gag reel and a two-and-a-half-minute “Line-O-Rama” of alternate improvisations.
Finally, the disc includes more than 14 minutes of deleted scenes, which expand on a few points and fill in some character details that are touched on in the final film.
Regarding the film’s digital copy, take note that the film is not available for redemption through Movies Anywhere, even though Universal is a signatory studio. The production company is STX Films, which does not have a distribution deal with Movies Anywhere, and as a result the digital code included with the disc is redeemable only through iTunes.