Warning: The Happytime Murders is a film for adult audiences, and is not intended for children. This review contains curse words and descriptions of sexual acts.
Jarrod Fairclough – Way way back in 2008, we first got rumblings of a puppet noire film by The Jim Henson Company, something about murders and Cameron Diaz. We rejoiced, excited to see what Henson would do with the genre. Then nothing happened. Cameron Diaz bailed, Katherine Heigl considered replacing her. Then nothing happened again. Finally, in 2015, Jamie Foxx and STX Films started chatting, and while our hopes raised a little, we were honest with ourselves – it’s been 7 years, what are the chances this is real? Then Melissa McCarthy entered the picture, and suddenly everything changed. Melissa is a reasonably well regarded comedy star, and if anyone could get this thing going, it would be her. So, finally, 10 years later, we sat down at a press screening to The Happytime Murders. And what an experience it was.
The Happytime Murders centers around Private Investigator Phil Phillips, performed by Muppet legend and our pal Bill Barretta, as he and his partner Connie Edwards, played by McCarthy, investigate the murders of The Happytime Gang, the cast of an old hit TV show whose stars have all but faded.
First things first; I enjoyed The Happytime Murders for what it was – a crude look at a world where puppets are second class citizens, hooked on sugar and dancing in the street for money. But the crude aspects seem to be the main issue with most peoples opinions of the film, and I can definitely understand their points. There are moments in this film that seem to scream ‘Haha, look! A puppet said fuck!’ or ‘Haha, oh boy, look at that silly string!’, the latter of which didn’t really play well during the screening I was at. I honestly had to wonder during my viewing if Brian Henson leaning on that crutch would distract from an otherwise compelling and engaging film. And it seems from early reviews, the answer is unfortunately yes, it did. But I don’t want to harp on too much about that now, I’ll go in to more detail in my spoiler filled review on Monday.
Instead, let me talk about what did work in this film, and I’m glad to say that there’s a lot. For a start, the puppetry in this film is impeccable, to the point where I’m not even sure how they did some of it. Whether it’s a puppet sitting in a spa, or Phil running through a hallway, it was genuinely the best puppetry I think I’ve ever seen on screen. The performances are great, lead by Bill Barretta, which should come as no surprise to anyone reading this site. Bill’s Phil is gruff, he’s angry, he’s a wise-ass. But he’s also capable of sweet moments, one in particular at Connie’s house really standing out. Phil is a fairly simple puppet – live hands, but no real mechs. So the way that with just a slight turn of the head Bill can entirely change Phil’s facial expression is nothing but genius.
Other lead puppeteers include Drew Massey, Victor Yerrid, Dorien Davies and Kevin Clash. Each one knocks it out of the park, with Drew’s Goofer not getting much more screen time than he does in the trailer, but being a personal favorite. Victor’s smarmy Larry, Phil’s brother, is hilarious in every incantation, Kevin’s Lyle has that perfect amount of drug lord in him to still be appealing, and Dorien’s Sandra is just oozing the same sex appeal that Jessica Rabbit did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Even the background characters, blurry and non-distracting, are all perfectly performed by a team of around 25 or so Henson puppeteers including Colleen Smith, John Tartaglia and our pal Jayden Libran.
While I know that Melissa McCarthy is a divisive figure in comedy, I’m personally a fan, and I loved her in The Happytime Murders. Unlike most of her other films, Melissa spends a lot of her time here as the straight man opposite Phil, but still gets to bust out her iconic one liners and physical gags once in a while. The relationship between the two leads is genuinely heartwarming, and it’s a testiment to both McCarthy and Barretta. There’s a real history between the characters which shines throughout. While I’m aware the tone would have been drastically different had Jamie Foxx stayed on, I’m for one glad Melissa got the gig, because what she brings is unique and I think it worked.
The other humans are fantastic as well. Joel McHale’s stern FBI Agent Campbell is a great straight man to the weird things going on around him. Leslie David Barker’s Lt. Banning looks like he’s been ripped out of a Lethal Weapon film, so kudos to him. Elizabeth Banks is criminally underused, but shines when she gets a chance. And then there’s Maya Rudolph, who might just steal the show as Phil’s assistant, Bubbles. What a character she is, and what an incredible job Maya does. Maya is one of those actresses where I’m not quite sure why they aren’t more popular. Maya has worked consistently since her time on Saturday Night Live, she’s had great roles in things like Bridesmaids and Sisters, and her recent guest stint on NBC’s The Good Place was good enough to get her an Emmy Nomination. But there’s still a lot of people who have no idea who she is, and I really hope that changes, because roles like Bubbles just go to show you why she deserves to be a comedy legend.
So that’s what worked in this film, and I’ll go in to my more critical thoughts in my spoiler filled review on Monday, once I’ve had a chance to see the film again. But, let me just say this – if you go in to The Happytime Murders expecting to see a contender for the next Best Picture winner, you’re going to leave disappointed. If you go in to The Happytime Murders expecting to be offended by puppets saying swear words and dominatrix dalmations, you’re going to leave offended. But if you go in to The Happytime Murders with the knowledge that while sometimes the humor is a little too crass for the sake of crass, there’s a genuinely compelling Who Dunnit? story and a heartwarming relationship at the center, maybe you’ll leave after having a Happytime.