In 1989 director Peter Jackson released a film which was a departure from normal puppet-centric platforms. Meet the Feebles was a puppet film meant for adults as it showed the felt creations acting like vulgar adults. It seemed Jackson wanted to shock potential viewers, but the future Lord of the Rings director may have seen the big picture by asserting puppets didn’t have to entertain just children.

With The Happytime Murders, this gross-out comedy continues along the path to which Jackson opened the doors. Happytime is an extension of the world-famous Muppets because its director, Brian Henson, is the son of the late Jim Henson. Rest assured, Brian doesn’t bring in Kermit, Miss Piggy, or any other well-known character to dirty up their squeaky-clean images – he draws upon new and unfamiliar characters. But like the Muppets, puppets and humans interact in the same world, although in Brian Henson’s world puppets are considered an inferior species and disrespected at every opportunity.

Happytime stars Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker and the voices of Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies, Kevin Clash, Drew Massey and Victor Yerrid, and its story centers around disgraced former puppet cop (now private investigator) Phil Philips (Barretta), and his joint investigation with Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy) into a string of murders. Puppets are being killed and their connection is they used to star on a show called The Happytime Gang. One of the victims is Phil’s older brother, Larry Shenanigans (Yerrid), so Phil is unwittingly invested emotionally. In addition, he and Edwards were once partners but had a falling out after a hostage situation went horribly wrong. The police begin to suspect Phil is behind the killings, so he has to find the real culprit quickly.

Admittedly, Happytime has potential. With Henson on board, he has plenty of experience as a Muppets puppeteer and could parlay his experience into something hilarious. But based on the final product it seemed like he was totally focused on shocking viewers. The story actually got in the way of fully accomplishing that goal and all attempts at humor were sacrificed. Happytime is a feature where the funniest parts were already shown in trailers and they used it just to get people in theaters. But these puppets missed the mark since they were forgettable characters and vulgar caricatures of low-life human tropes.

I admire Henson’s attempts to honor film noir like The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Phil is a puppet version of gumshoe roles made famous by Humphrey Bogart - Phil even provides narration that gives Happytime a throwback feel and upholds a film noir trope. McCarthy and Barretta seemed to have some decent chemistry (they spew insults at each other left and right) as they had to iron out their past issues while working the case. But there’s not much to brag about – McCarthy seems misused despite working somewhat well alongside puppets; and Barretta is used well but in a poor film.

Ultimately, films with puppets need to be fun. Brian Henson and writer Todd Berger understood that but struggled mightily in realizing it. Happytime is more boring than shocking and it’ll be forgotten quickly by everyone involved. It’s too bad because two years ago Sausage Party was released with similar intentions and was generally well-received. Sausage Party is animated, though, but animation is another medium considered more for children that has been used successfully to entertain adults. The Happytime Murders, though, doesn’t entertain – it is unrealized potential that only serves to guide future filmmakers as to what not to do when attempting to make a raunchy comedy.

2 stars out of 5

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