“From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street…” It’s true. Leading up to the release of The Happytime Murders, STX Productions was sued by Sesame Workshop, the company behind the beloved children’s television series, for making use of the tagline “No Sesame, all street” in the movie’s marketing campaign. Ironic, considering that the director of The Happytime Murders, Ben Henson, is the son of acclaimed puppeteer and creator of Sesame Street, Jim Henson.
Henson Jr. has been involved in nearly every major puppet production alongside his father in the last thirty years, so when it comes to the technical work behind his latest movie, The Happytime Murders boasts some of the finest puppeteering to be put on the silver screen. The puppets are physically there with the audience catching glimpses of their full bodies. It is very impressive and contributes to establishing this world where humans and socks filled with fluff live side by side.
Written by Todd Berger and set in Los Angeles (which is probably why I was having multiple flashbacks to David Ayer’s Bright while watching this), the film follows puppet ex-cop detective Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), teaming up with his old partner Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy, to solve the murders of the former puppet stars (and their token human, played by Elizabeth Banks), of popular television show, The Happytime Gang. Philips and Edwards have to work fast, as the mounds of ripped material are starting to pile up, while the two of them reconcile over a relationship that ended in tatters.
Many critics of this film agree that the failure of this movie lies in its comedy. It isn’t. The jokes are funny. They are not just topical references and they play into the world that Henson and his team are trying to create. There are a couple of great laughs to be had with McCarthy’s character who, having previously undergone a puppet organ transplant, has experienced a downward spiral from something sweeter than alcohol. Her relationship to Philips is also great, with there being genuine chemistry and emotions that have been wrought over time.
However, this does lead into the movie’s big problem. Its focus is centered on Philips and Edwards, which is to be expected with a buddy-cop murder mystery. But the relationship and the story are so cliched and repetitive that it results in a stale cinematic experience. And that should not be the case with a movie that has this concept all to itself. I cannot think of the last time I saw puppets engage in this sort of raunchy behaviour, and it is a clean deviation from the more family-centered offerings of The Muppets and Sesame Street.
The movie quickly glosses over the assertion that puppets are a marginalised, discriminated race in this world and to be frank, that is a good thing. In a comedy such as this, it does not need that weight and it could distract from the humour. But with the formulaic plot of this movie, the world that Henson has built does not have time to be further explored. Less time devoted to the human characters and more on how the puppets live and go about their daily lives would have made the film more engaging and unique (come to think of it, Bright had a similar problem with slapping magical creatures in our modern-day world, without thinking through the logistics of such an existence).
The side characters in this movie are hit-and-miss. Phil Philips’ devoted secretary Bubbles, played by Maya Rudolph, is a joy every time she is on screen. Meanwhile, Joel McHale’s FBI Agent Campbell only seems to be there for McCarthy to insult. You could forget that Elizabeth Banks was even in this movie, while the members of The Happytime Gang each embody a problem usually beset by TV stars, and they do it very well.
The technicals of The Happytime Murders remain a highlight of the film itself. Henson takes after his father in creating characters that you believe actually do exist and who are not being controlled by backstage puppeteers. The comedy, though maybe being disposable, is still solid. While I was busy writing this review, my sister remarked that this has the potential to go down as a cult movie. I could see that happening.
But other than that, it’s a by-the-numbers cop movie that does very little to separate itself from the others, other than the fact that half the cast is made of foam. I don’t think you’ll be wanting to sue anyone to get your movie ticket money back, but I doubt that this film will leave filled with anything but fluff.
Last Updated: September 6, 2018