Do not walk into The Happytime Murders thinking that you are in for 90 minutes of Jim Henson’s tales of humans and puppets cohabiting today. No, Kermit and Miss Piggy would be bingeing maple syrup and begging to escape this gritty, dingy place where sugar is like crack and puppets are the sad stereotypical representations of Black people of America.
Yes, there is a not too subtle attempt to meld racism into this noir tale that tries too hard to laugh at itself. At the same time, it tries to convince someone in the audience, I guess, that the story is a serious attempt at tackling issues of racism and privilege. The effort is overdone, and damn-near racist in its way, and missing out on some great opportunities to redefine a genre and put forth a message.
The Happytime Murders follows a private detective named Phil Phillips, who is a puppet and a reject from the LAPD. Phillips was the first puppet to be accepted on the force and after an accidental shooting that may (or may not) be trying to empathize with the Black community’s struggle against police violence. It’s hard to tell, like everything else in this film. The details about Phillips’ stint on the force are withheld and teased out in an excruciating series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film. Just one could have done it and well. However, exaggeration seemed a part of the film’s schtick.
Phillips gets a new client, whom he later has sex within a scene that makes me seriously doubt I’ll ever let my kids play with silly string again. He follows a clue that leads him to a porn shop. There the real crimes begin. Things in the film were already headed toward the raunchy comedy that reminded me more of Beavis and Butthead than Kermit and Fozzy. They fell off the deep end at the porn shop.
I’ll just warn you to not stare too closely at the octopus and the milk cow making fetish porn. The scene takes place about a half minute after Phillips enters the shop and is not something you will easily forget. Also, the Easter Bunny pees purple glitter Koolaid. Just an FYI.
Now you see what I mean? These ARE NOT the puppets we grew up with. The murder investigation picks up Melissa McCarthy’s character Connie. She’s a racist (is it racism to hate puppets?) detective who was once Phillips’ partner on the force. McCarthy works some serious physical comedy moves as she interacts with the puppets. Sometimes her moves get really violent but are somewhat funny as they are enacted on the puppets.
However, some of her scenes meant to be the most hilarious should not be funny. They feature Connie’s addiction to the same crack that ends so many puppets–sugar. As the duo hunt down the person who is killing puppets, McCarthy’s racist heart melts until they are working together to save… I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say they do have an endgame. It’s one that ended about a half hour later than it should have. The Save-a-racist trope is still not sitting well with me either.
That racism theme really bothered me. Despite the meticulous construction of a world where puppets are trying to assimilate into a society that once saw them as toys, the failed attempts at humor just wipe out any importance that writers intended to convey. Instead, scenes devolve into what is meant to be humor but end up being almost insulting, like the one where a key puppet is killed by being pulled apart by angry dogs. It was too close to the history of Black America where dogs were used to hunt black bodies. That scene was also really jarring next to the themes of disenfranchisement and discrimination that the film plays around with for the sake of comedy. The result is some very uncomfortable scenes that are only funny to the most immature of viewers.
Director Brian Henson does manage to bring audiences the puppets we all remember from childhood. He has also gathered a surprising cast in addition to Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks co-stars as Jenny, the human who acted alongside the puppets in a kid’s show. The cast of that show are the targets for the murder spree. (The show is titled The Happytime Gang. Get it.) Joel McHale plays a racist federal agent, and the hilarious Maya Rudolph’s talents are wasted as Philips’ secretary Bubbles.
Instead, it abandoned the message for the sake of toilet humor and sex jokes. The story also dragged the “chase” part of the noir detective film on way too long. The film was also much too invested in making fun of itself.
This is supposed be a dark comedy, and I think it truly started out that way. Somewhere along the way, maybe after too many puppet sex jokes or around the time someone okayed the Dalmation dominatrix scene, things went off the rails. The adults disappeared from the writers’ room and were replaced by teenaged boys. The result is a long, drawn-out Robot Chicken episode written by Beavis and Butthead.
The Happytime Murders comes to theaters August 24. Here’s a peek at the official trailer. It’s NSFW.
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Jonita Davis is a writer, mother, a certified nerd, and writer of Black Girl Nerds. Davis is a critic and journalist. She has been writing for 13 years about the way pop culture and politics affect our lives as parents, women, black women, nerds, and people of this planet.