The Happytime Murders (Rated R; in theaters August 24th)
Muppets have always held a special place in my heart. Both Sesame Street and the original Muppet Show (yes, I’m that old) played a big role in my childhood development. One taught me the alphabet and basic math, and the other taught me that pigs and frogs can have complicated yet beautiful relationships.
So when I found out that there was a new Muppet project in the works that was slightly more adult-oriented than its predecessors (to put it mildly), I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen puppets behaving badly. And there’s plenty of animated humor out there that kids have no business watching that’s incredibly smart, well-written, and hilarious. So this isn’t completely uncharted territory.
But these aren’t just any puppets. These are MUPPETS. And while we don’t see familiar felt-covered faces like Kermit, Miss Piggy, or Gonzo, the Henson style is unmistakable. These are characters that look like they would fit right in at the Muppet Theater or down on Sesame Street, and so it’s a little unnerving to watch them tear each other limb from limb (literally) or have crazy sex on a desk. On some level, it just doesn’t seem right.
So I’ll admit I went in expecting to generally dislike The Happytime Murders. But I was pleasantly surprised. Does it go a little over-the-top in places? Absolutely. But not as much as I thought it would. And while the story is a little formulaic (your basic cop/private eye kind of stuff), the puppeteers and actors turn in some really nice performances. And, despite the graphic humor, the movie still has that familiar Muppet feel that makes it fun to watch. Personally, I think just about every movie and TV show would be better with at least one Muppet character, and so I guess even a “bad” movie full of them really couldn’t be all that bad.
But, like most good comedies, The Happytime Murders also makes you think. It’s set in a world where puppets live side-by-side with humans, but the puppets are openly discriminated against and taken advantage of by the humans (to include actually removing body parts from the puppets and selling them). And so while the plot primarily focuses on private detective (and former cop) Phil Philips (puppet) and police detective Connie Edwards (human, played by Melissa McCarthy) and their efforts to solve a string of puppet murders (pardon the pun), we also see the two of them being forced to work together despite their differences and how their perceptions change over time.
We also see just how bad it can get when one group clearly has the upper hand and assumes every member of the other group is stupid, worthless, and undeserving of opportunity. Name-calling is commonplace on both sides—humans disparagingly refer to puppets as “socks,” and the puppets call humans “fleshies” or “meatsacks.” It’s an interesting commentary on race relations in the twenty-first century, and while it’s delivered in a light-hearted way, the message is clear.
One of the things that makes a Muppet project fun to watch is the interaction between the human actors and the puppets themselves. McCarthy turns in a solid performance (as she usually does), but Maya Rudolph really does good work in a limited role as Philips’ assistant, Bubbles. While she doesn’t share as much screen time with the puppets themselves as some of the other actors, her scenes with McCarthy are some of the best in the movie. Also, as a huge fan of The Office, it’s a little weird seeing Stanley Hudson without his book of crossword puzzles, but it works.
And, of course, in true Henson fashion, the puppeteers all do an amazing job bringing the stuffed members of the cast to life. There’s some amazing behind-the-scenes footage during the credits that’s worth hanging around for—if you’ve ever wondered how you walk a Muppet across the street without any visible assistance, or how you make them do other things that most humans would find challenging (at least without limbering up first), it’s pretty interesting.
If you like off-beat comedy, and you don’t mind a few outrageous moments, and you go into it with an open mind (and relatively low expectations), I think you’ll enjoy The Happytime Murders. And if you’re a lifelong Muppets fan like me, you might enjoy it even more. It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun. And sometimes that’s all you’re really looking for.
Oh, and you’ll never look at a can of silly string the same way again—I guarantee it.