THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS
Director: Brian Henson
Screenwriter: Todd Berger, from a story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson
Runtime: 91 mins.
Australian release date: 30 August 2018
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 22 August 2018.
It’s taken The Jim Henson Company, home of the muppets, around 10 years to get The Happytime Murders to the screen and it’s easy to see why, because they’re certainly not in Sesame Street any more, Dorothy. Jim Henson’s son, Brian, is the directorial force behind this rather bizarre concoction that mixes live actors with puppets playing human-type characters… well most of them – there are also rabbits, boars, vultures, you name it – and they get up to some pretty outré and risqué behaviour. Todd Berger’s script mashes up The Maltese Falcon-style film noir with cop buddy movies and sprinkles the result with some ultra-violence, a bit of Cheech and Chong stoner humour and more than a dash of puppet porn! If you’re prepared to run with it, much of The Happytime Murders is outrageously funny. Be warned though, it’s a very particular kind of comedy and won’t be to everyone’s taste. And most certainly, leave the kids at home!
Henson’s film is set in the seedy underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. A couple who used to be workmates, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and her puppet ex-partner-turned-Private Investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta), are forced together again when the cast of the much-loved classic puppet TV show The Happytime Gang begins to be brutally murdered. Connie and Phil parted disagreeably some years earlier when Phil inadvertently killed an innocent bystander while taking a shot at a puppet with a gun to Connie’s head. As a result, he was ‘let go’ from the force because he was suspected of being philosophically opposed to shooting a fellow ‘felt’. Now, though, because Phil’s older brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) is one of the victims, he’s called back by the cops due to his perceived inside knowledge. At the same time, Phil’s engaged by a puppet femme fatale, Sandra (Dorien Davies), to find out who’s attempting to blackmail her. So far, so Sam Spade. Once Phil starts investigating, though, things start to get really crazy.
The combination of live actors with puppets is exceedingly well done and it’s almost a welcome relief to know the actors are at least relating to a figure that they can see, rather than a mark in front of a green screen, as is the case with the computer-generated characters we’re more used to seeing these days. Scenes shown during the end credits illustrate this hilariously, when we see some of the outtakes. McCarthy is terrific as the conflicted cop and the rest of the ‘real’ company are equally as good, in particular, Elizabeth Banks as Jenny, Phil’s ex and the only human in The Happytime Gang series, and Maya Rudolph as Bubbles, Phil’s secretary, who’s got a major league crush on him. The actors who voice the large cast of puppets bring their characters to life effectively through the use of a variety of different accents and tones, some of them playing more than one role.
The Happytime Murders is a guilty pleasure that’ll have you squirming in your seat as much as it will make you laugh. There are plenty of film references, so movie buffs might appreciate it more than most, and a lot of sex and drug gags (it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “gimme some sugar”)! On a more serious note, the film’s subtext can be seen as a slap in the face of racism and the demonization of ‘the other’ that is a feature of today’s populist brand of politics. Replace the ‘felts’ (the puppets) with any other marginalised group in society, eg. Moslems or Sudanese youth, and the message is clear. But hey, don’t get too heavy, man – this is destined to be a cult favourite.