Skewing Jim Henson’s Muppets to an adult audience has never worked. A 1975 pilot went nowhere and ABC’s recent TV run flopped. The Happytime Murders is a wholly juvenile flogging of the dead horse, reliant on crap comic crudities whilst forgetting to be fun.
It’s not that puppets can’t work for an adults-only audience. Brian Henson’s film follows a long lineage with the likes of Meet the Feebles, Team America and Broadway’s Avenue Q. The mistake made here is that this is R-rated content aimed at an adolescent crowd. A script by Todd Berger rests on the concept that bulbous-nosed, goggle-eyed muppets are just as horny as the next nymphomaniac. One sequence involving an octopus milking a cow for pornography sets a low bar but its an over-long silly string ejaculation sequence that hammers the banality home.
The premise itself isn’t half bad, dabbling as it does in the territory of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and replacing beleaguered toon characters with persecuted puppets. Just as in Robert Zemeckis’ film, the protagonist here is a film noir – puppet – cop gone to sea, shipwrecked by past tragedy involving his former – human – partner (Melissa McCarthy). There’s a new case to be solved and only one puppet can save the day. A decade might have been devoted to getting the film made but no time was spent on ensuring that it’s original. Heck, it hasn’t even got an aesthetic.
In Henson’s Los Angeles, humans and puppets live side by side as comfortably as Blade Runner’s android cohabitation; the former lord themselves over the latter, who are ladled the derogatory title ‘socks’. For all P.I. Phil Phillips’ (Muppets regular Bill Barretta) protestations – ‘Times have changed! You don’t have to sing and dance for the man anymore’ – segregation is rife in the city.
Were it not so broad, this stretch for meaning and nuance might have inspired a more engaging overall piece. Unlike the self-enclosed Roger Rabbit, however, The Happytime Murders plays as something of a misguided allegory for the real-world blights of ethnic segregation and sexual inequality. Much like in some regions today, the puppets are treated like dirt and are liable for spontaneous police brutality.
Yet, any legitimacy of these parallels is undermined by the glee with which the puppets – and puppets alone – are brutally murdered in full view of the camera. Exploding felt heads erupt at regular intervals in the film into mounds of fluff; it is funny but toxically hypocritical. That’s not even to mention the literal dehumanisation factor.
The serial killing of puppets is actually the film’s central concern, with the cast of an old Sesame Street styled kids TV show – ‘The Happytime Gang’ – being picked off individually by an unknown assailant. Unknown, that is, if you have never seen a film before in your life. In a sub-plot, Phillips has been recruited by fellow puppet Sandra White (Dorien Davies) to discover who’s been blackmailing her. Whoever it is, they’ve plenty of material: ‘Despite my bookish appearance, I’m a sexual ima,’ says Sandra. ‘It means if I’m a get next to it, ima going to f**k it’.
So much of Henson’s film is devoted to attempts at shocking the audience with gimmicks, that actual wit feels overlooked. Occasionally guilty chuckles subside to allow bona fide laughs to form but, for the most part, this is all pretty lame. It’s not offensive, it’s just boring.