Review: ‘The Happytime Murders’ (too little, too late, too bad)

Everything worth watching is in the restricted trailer — yes, all of it.

“No Sesame. All Street.” In the seedy underbelly of a Los Angeles where puppets and humans inexplicably exist together, a human police detective (Melissa McCarthy) and a disgraced former puppet-cop-turned-private-eye are forced to become partners again. With the beloved puppet cast members of a popular 1990s television show being brutally killed off, can the former friends resolve their personal differences over their falling out, solve the case, and stop the real villain before the entire cast ends up secondhand pillow stuffing?

Most of director Brian Henson’s credits are for television; most of writer Todd Berger’s credits are for shorts. This collaboration on a feature-length film is experimental to say the least, the first film from Henson Alternative (Ha!): puppet entertainment for grown-ups — no, really; this exists. Watching the uncensored red-band trailer hints that the contents may only be a taste of how outrageous this could be, but can the folks responsible for “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” and The Dark Crystal pull off a modern frat-boy film noir with cussing and fornicating plushies?

These aren’t merely puppets; they’re full-on Jim Henson Muppets with a capital “M.” His son and family of Muppeteers made this, and it isn’t a new idea. Perhaps it fell flat due to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where shows like “Robot Chicken” and “Rick and Morty” have already shattered the idea that toons and kid-stuff can’t have an adult R-rated slant. Maybe this would have had more impact if it was actually the Muppets we already know — Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo — but introducing the dark side of puppetdom didn’t only feel wrong; it fell flat and felt pointless. Believe it or not, Happytime fails to live up to its concept by not going far enough.

Remember Team America: World Police? Specifically — you guessed it — anatomically incorrect marionettes simulating sex acts they’re neither equipped to actually perform nor enjoy? The makers of “South Park” went over the top and got away with something previously thought impossible on a mere R-rating. Then again, these are the same folks also brought an X-rated superhero called Orgazmo to the big screen; Trey Parker and Matt Stone understand that world-building is essential even for comedy. You’d think the folks who brought Labyrinth to life would get this, so what happened?

The thing which destroys much of the fun to be had is puppets cast as second-class citizens; besides the one exception indicated in this story, puppets appear to be shunned and abused by everyone. No one seems worried about this — they’re just puppets, after all. This differs from every previous Muppet movie: no one ever called attention to the fact these were constructs inexplicably imbued with life. With the idea of Muppets cussing and prostituting themselves worn out in the span of a red-band trailer, how did they think this would work for ninety minutes?

Henson Alternative as a concept could be interesting, but this was not a good first showing; behind-the-scenes footage during the credits prove this was much more fun for them to make to make than for anyone to watch. Why not make an R-rated Dark Crystal film, or maybe continue “Farscape” into darker subjects? Hell, hire Parker and Stone if it has to be a comedy! Sorry, folks: making a modern noir-inspired movie that looks like a TV pilot that everyone passed on is no excuse for putting it up on a silver screen.

The Happytime Murders is rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, some drug material, and only enough material to fill a cheap can of silly string.

Zero skull recommendation out of four

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