The Happytime Murders

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 12/4/18;
Universal;
Comedy;
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.

‘Assassination Nation’ Coming to Digital and Disc Dec. 18 From Universal

The horror-thriller Assassination Nation will come out on digital (including Movies Anywhere), Blu-ray, DVD and on demand Dec. 18 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

The action-satire stars Odessa Young (The Daughter), Hari Nef (“Transparent”), Suki Waterhouse (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and singer Abra as four best friends living in a suburban town where chaos simmers under a façade of lies. High school senior Lily (Young) and her friends live in a world controlled by social media, filled with selfies, emojis, snaps and sexts. When their small town of Salem experiences a massive data hack outing citizens’ private information, the community descends into anarchy. When Lily becomes the target after being falsely blamed for the hack, her squad bands together to save themselves and survive a blood-soaked night.

The supporting cast includes Bella Thorne (Midnight Sun), Bill Skarsgard (IT), Joel McHale (“Community”) and Maude Apatow (“Girls”).

Bonus features on Blu-ray, DVD include deleted and extended scenes and a gag reel.

‘The Happytime Murders’ Coming to Digital Nov. 20, Disc Dec. 4 From Universal

The Melissa McCarthy comedy The Happytime Murders is coming to digital Nov. 20 and Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and on demand Dec. 4 from STXfilms and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

The film made $20.7 million in theaters.

Directed and produced by Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol) along with producers Jeffrey Hayes, McCarthy (who also stars) and Ben Falcone, the raunchy comedy also stars Maya Rudolph (Bridesmaids), Joel McHale (“Community”) and Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect). Set in the underbelly of Los Angeles where puppets and humans coexist, the film follows two clashing detectives — one human (McCarthy) and one puppet — with a shared secret who are forced to work together again to solve the brutal murders of the former cast of a classic puppet TV show.

Bonus features on Blu-ray, DVD and digital include:

  • deleted scenes;
  • a gag reel;
  • “Line-O-Rama”;
  • “Virtual Environments,” in which viewers can go behind the scenes to see the transformation of the film’s virtual environments including visual effects through backdrops, action scenes, and the movements of the puppets themselves;
  • “Avatars Demo,” in whichVFX supervisors discuss how The Happytime Murders created a new realm of puppet movies by using avatars to make the puppets come to life;
  • “VFX Breakdown,” an overview of the impact of visual special effects in the film;
  • theatrical trailers; and
  • feature commentary with Henson and voice actor Bill Barretta.

‘Community,’ ‘Rescue Me,’ ‘Benji’ on September Disc Slate From Mill Creek

Complete Blu-ray series sets of “Community” and “Rescue Me,” two double features and films about animal friends are among the titles on Mill Creek Entertainment’s September disc slate.

Due Sept. 18 is Community: The Complete Series, featuring all 110 episodes from the TV series, on both Blu-ray ($99.98) and DVD ($69.98). The comedy ensemble series, starring Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Ken Jeong, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Borwn and Jim Rash, centers on a tight-knit group of friends who all meet at Greendale Community College and their hijinks.

All seven seasons are included in Rescue Me: The Complete Series coming out Sept. 11 on Blu-ray ($149.98). Whether pulling survivors from a fiery high-rise or the twisted steel of a subway collision, Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary) takes pride in leading the heroic but overwhelmed firefighters of the NYFD. Meanwhile, he’s also drifting between sorrow and anger over a separation from his wife and three kids, and the haunting memories of his fallen comrades.

The lovable mutt Benji returns Sept. 11 in the Benji: Off the Leash Blu-ray combo pack (plus DVD and digital) at $19.98. The story, told from the pooch’s point of view, tracks his early days as a pup to his current life in showbiz. Bonus features include a feature-length commentary with director Joe Camp, editor Dava Whisenant, composer Anthony Di Lorenzo and producer Margaret Loesch; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and “Benji Movie Memories,” which covers memorable scenes from five Benji movies starring three different Benjis.

Streeting Sept. 18 are two double features on Blu-ray at $14.98 each. The comedy double feature includes Age of Consent, starring James Mason and Helen Mirren, and Cactus Flower, starring Goldie Hawn, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau. This is the first time either film has been available in high definition.

Also in HD for the first time are Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk, paired in a double feature of fright. Nightwing follows the investigation of a wave of mysterious deaths on a Native American reservation in New Mexico that turn out to be caused by killer bats. Shadow of the Hawk stars Jan-Michael Vincent in a tale of an old Native American shaman who trains his skeptical grandson as a medicine man to battle enemies and black magic.

Born Free: The Complete Collection comes out on DVD Sept. 11 at $19.98. The franchise collection is based on the 1960 book about raising an orphaned lion cub Elsa and then releasing her back into the wild. The book changed the world’s perception of wild animals. The DVD collection includes the 1966 original film, the 1972 sequel, the 1974 TV series and the 1996 TV movie.

Due Sept. 11 is the Western Buffalo Girls on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98. The film, starring Anjelica Huston, Melanie Griffith and Sam Elliott, celebrates the escapades of tough-talking Calamity Jane Canary. It co-stars Gabriel Byrne, Reba McEntire and Peter Coyote.

The miniseries Family Pictures comes out Sept. 11 on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98. The drama, starring Anjelica Huston, Sam Neill and Kyra Sedgwick, is based on Sue Miller’s best-selling novel. It follows a daughter who comes home to her divorced parents and tells the story of her family, including her younger autistic brother.

Coming Sept. 11 on DVD (plus digital) at $14.98 is Hollywood’s Best and Brightest, featuring more than 12 hours of Hollywood star biographies. Featured legends are Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Wagner, Michael York, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Candice Bergen, Catherine Deneuve, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Jodie Foster, Goldie Hawn, Lauren Hutton, Angela Lansbury, Shirley MacLaine, Ann-Margret, Barbra Streisand, Kathleen Turner and Raquel Welch.

Lionsgate Signs Second Talk Show with Netflix

Lionsgate March 9 announced it has licensed 10 episodes of new talk show, “Norm Macdonald has a Show,” to Netflix. The talker featuring “Saturday Night Live” (Weekend Update) alum and standup comedian Norm Macdonald, follows the recent Netflix launch of “The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale” — also created by Lionsgate Television.

Canadian-born Macdonald cut his teeth writing for “Roseanne,” in addition to making appearances on “The Drew Carey Show” and “NewsRadio.”

Per Macdonald’s dry wit, he tweeted the alleged exchange with Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos about launching a show.

Netflix streamed its first talker in 2015 with Chelsea Handler, which lasted two seasons. It recently aired the first of periodic Q&A show featuring David Letterman.