Review: 'Happytime Murders' is juvenile fun, nothing more

Puppets do all sorts of bad things in this naughty, R-rated send-up of detective tales

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Melissa McCarthy in "The Happytime Murders."

There are several points in "The Happytime Murders" where it appears the film is aiming to be more than just a raunchy parody of a hard-boiled detective noir -- with puppets.  

And then another flood of gross-out gags washes in, and it's clear "The Happytime Murders" is just a raunchy parody of a hard-boiled detective noir -- with puppets.

Since the laughs in this ribald comedy are better than adequate, the film gets a slight pass. 

But "The Happytime Murders" is a missed opportunity to slip something past the audience, to actually pass off a message without compromising the sex and drug jokes that are the movie's raison d'être. 

In a different era -- say, the '90s -- those elements may have been outrageous.

But 14 years after "Team America: World Police" took puppets there -- while lampooning notions of American imperialism, no less -- those elements now seem a little passé.

"The Happytime Murders" unfolds in an alternate-reality Los Angeles where puppets walk among us, no strings attached. 

They are treated like second-class citizens, picked on by children, attacked by dogs, denigrated by humans and forced to perform for loose change in the street. (The film dangles a carrot about the humans' treatment of puppets being a stand-in for race relations in America, but never follows through with its point.) 

Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is a blue felt, fluff-stuffed former cop, the first puppet allowed on the force, who is now a down-and-out private investigator. 

He gets pulled into an investigation involving the cast of "The Happytime Gang," a popular sitcom. Its stars are all being offed one-by-one as a syndication deal looms and a $10 million paycheck is set to be divided among its principal cast members.

Philips teams up with his former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, hilariously unhinged), to solve the murders. Edwards is part puppet -- long story short, she has a puppet liver -- and is addicted to snorting sugar, the cocaine of the puppet world.  

It's a hammy story that trades on and sends up detective clichés; Baretta's gruff voiceover sets the perfect tone for the farce. 

Maya Rudolph is aces as Philips' bubbly-voiced secretary who harbors a crush on her boss, and Joel McHale strikes the right note as an out-of-town FBI agent sent to crash the case. 

But somewhere along the way, "The Happytime Murders" stops satirizing detective tales and becomes one itself. It follows the twists and turns of the story a little too matter-of-factly, and blows its shot at becoming more than what it is. ("Sausage Party" threw a food orgy and made it a commentary on ethnic stereotypes, proving you can have your cake and watch it have sex too, so to speak.)  

Director Brian Henson -- yes, son of Jim -- is clearly working out some of his issues involving the wholesome puppets he grew up around. He turns them into drug addicted, violent sex fiends; Jim Henson probably never envisioned his puppets populating darkened drug dens. 

Writer Todd Berger is also a veteran of children's stories, having written shorts for the "Kung Fu Panda" and "Smurfs" series, and here he gets to let out all his formerly repressed bad boy urges. (Puppet porn? Check.) 

The gags work, for awhile at least, and Berger's script is sharp enough that it never lets its juvenile edges get the best of it. 

"Happytime" is good old fashioned dirty fun -- somewhere, Fritz the Cat is smiling -- but if you're looking for something more, look elsewhere.


'The Happytime Murders'


Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material

Running time: 91 minutes