The perfect summer comedy was supposed to comprise actress Melissa McCarthy, “Sesame Street”-inspired puppets and an R-rating. Director Brian Henson could have made “The Happytime Murders” a groundbreaking piece of black comedy. Instead, he chose to add an unwanted ingredient: a worn-out plot.
“The Happytime Murders” takes place in a Los Angeles where humans and puppets coexist, and follows the actions of hard-nosed former cop Phil Phillips, a puppet voiced by Bill Barretta. Phillips is tasked with solving the mysterious murders of the cast of the cherished 1980s puppet show “Happytime Gang,” among whom were his brother and former girlfriend. To solve the case, Phillips has to reopen even more old wounds by teaming up with his unforgiving human ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).
The puppet-based film was directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, who has had success combining obscene humor with innocent-looking characters in past projects like “Puppet Up!”
Unlike “Puppet Up!,” audiences didn’t turn a blind eye to the stripping of puppets’ innocence for “The Happytime Murders.” The film’s marketing slogan — “No Sesame. All Street.” — and its trailer featuring drug use and puppet ejaculation was enough to get the G-rated “Sesame Street” creators involved, but after puppets performing as lawyers addressed the issue. U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick ruled in favor of Henson and STX Entertainment.
That ruling has been the lone upside of the raunchy puppet comedy. Despite the free “Sesame Street” publicity, the STX production was a financial flop, scraping in a reported $10 million opening weekend. Possibly sensing impending failure, the film’s cast members seemingly tried distancing themselves as much as contractually possible; stars Elizabeth Banks and McCarthy left no traces that they had been involved in the project on their social media accounts.
Regardless of marketing or talent involvement, “The Happytime Murders” fails because its ideas are tired by every measure, and no amount of puppet pornography gags can make up for a blatant lack of innovation and originality. Even with a run-of-the-mill plot, the film’s comedy writing could still be the antidote to a poisonous storyline. Unfortunately, its dosage was too low. Moreover, the action sequences presented in the film are hardly different from predictable works such as Netflix’s “Bright” or ABC’s “Quantico.”
Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), a former cast member of “The Happytime Gang,” advises Phillips in the film, “Every poison has an antidote,” pointing out the detective’s poisonous effects on loved ones. This quote had the potential to serve as a greater purpose had producers taken it into account.
The film is riddled with missed opportunities and underdeveloped dialogues; Henson’s concept had potential to strike comedy gold, but his lack of forethought resulted in yet another bland and unoriginal comedy flick.
The few scenes featuring pure puppet mania and an unhinged McCarthy were the clear highpoints of the hour-and-a-half-long production. Laughter resounded in the theater as a puppet dog was in control of a BDSM relationship with a human firefighter, and it grew louder when McCarthy got high snorting pure glucose through a Twizzler. Even so, these rare moments of hilarity only stood out for what felt like a fraction of the duration of the film.
While “The Happytime Murders” has some redeeming moments, its comedic components aren’t used enough to salvage a stale, unoriginal murder-mystery plot. As a whole, the raunchy puppet comedy is a disappointing addition to the Henson legacy.