1. There is a certain kind of kid you meet growing up to whom it is incredibly important that you know that he finds himself dangerous and rebellious. He—and it’s always a he—is probably from a nice family that raised him to be a good boy, but once he hits a certain adolescent age, he feels an undeniable pressure to show that he is Tough. This manifests itself, as all pre-teen rebellion, in potty talk: Bad language, “dirty” jokes, constant talk about sex that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the act itself. You know it’s a phase. You know he’s just trying to look cool to his friends. You know everybody can see right through it. But you’re still embarrassed for him. He’s trying so hard. He’s trying so, so hard.
2. The Happytime Murders is a movie made by one of those kids, though I wouldn’t say for one of those kids: Any self-respecting snot-nosed nihilist punk kid would flip this thing the bird and go sneak into Slender Man to giggle at all the scared girls. The movie is so desperate to be gross and over-the-top that it overstays its welcome within the first 15 minutes, and we’re counting trailers. The movie is directed by Brian Henson, Jim’s son, as part of the something called Henson Alternative, and, well, he has some explaining to do. It is not fair to say that Jim Henson would be appalled by what his son has done with this film, because hey, why single him out? You don’t have to be the most famous puppeteer in world history to think The Happytime Murders is repugnant junk. All you have to do is see it.
3. The premise of The Happytime Murders is … well, actually, I’m not sure there is a premise here. This is not like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which imagined a world where Toons and Humans co-existed but had a framework for it, a foundational concept around which it structured its plot. The Happytime Murders doesn’t really bother with that. It very shakily, and very briefly, sketches a light puppets-as-racial-outcasts metaphor, but then it drops it for a buddy cop would-be comedy that occasionally features puppets orgasming silly string all over an office for about three minutes. The puppets aren’t interesting as anything other than puppets saying gross things when we are not used to puppets saying gross things; that is the joke, over and over and over. We meet L.A. private investigator Phil Phillips, a puppet who gets paired with his old cop partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to investigate a series of murders of cast members of an old ’80s television show. And then they go have a mismatched partnership that has less emotional stakes and fewer laughs than Tango and Cash.
4. What’s immediately surprising and dispiriting about The Happytime Murders is how haphazard the actual puppets are. They aren’t inventively or cleverly put together, and they’re sort of repulsive in a way that’s less “edgy” and more “consistently unpleasant to look at.” (They all look only half-finished, and perpetually soggy.) The movie keeps putting disgusting things in the mouths of these puppets and expecting that to do all the work, and I suppose it is a credit to McCarthy and the other humans in the cast, namely Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks, that they’re generally game for anything in a movie where it probably would have been wise for them to keep sneaking slowly out of frame. Did you ever wonder whether it would be funny to see a series of puppets, in all sorts of different contexts, keep offering to perform sexual favors for drugs? Let me tell you, reader, it is not. Not that this movie doesn’t keep trying to convince you (or maybe just itself).
5. Watching The Happytime Murders slowly spin its way into the gutter, I found myself wondering why, when I first heard about the film, I was excited to see it. Was it McCarthy? She has a few moments of fun filth here, particularly when she ends up incredibly high at a drug party. But McCarthy is funny on her own, without puppets: If anything, you wish the puppets would leave the screen all together. Was it the idea of a dirty Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That could have theoretically worked, but then again, that’s what Cool World was supposed to be, and that was terrible despite Ralph Bakshi having a far better eye and far more to say than Brian Henson ever has. I realized, alas, that it was because there was a Henson in charge, and that I remembered how Jim Henson was able to use his puppets in a way that confounded and moved both children and adults alike. Just having the name of that company attached gave me hope, made me think they could recapture that magic, that they could meet our current moment with something ribald and risky and, yeah, old-school Muppets funny. And then you watch this crap and you realize that the movie isn’t just terrible, it really did make sure that you’ll never have that sort of hope when you see that name again—that time really has passed. This is a movie whose mouth you want to wash out with soap.
Director: Brian Henson
Writer: Todd Berger
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Barreta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale
Release Date: August 24, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.