When I first heard about THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, I got excited. A film that was some sort of mashup of neo-noir and AVENUE Q? WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT with puppets? Sign me up immediately! My money awaits a new home in your pocket, Mr. Studio Executive!

Then I saw the trailer. I snagged my money quickly from Mr. Executive’s hands and backed slowly and quietly from the room. However, a movie critic can receive no rest, can offer no quarter when it comes to films. Even ones that look as dire as THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS did. Perhaps, I told myself, it would be another BLOCKERS, another comedy this year horribly misrepresented by its trailer.

With that delusional thought, I headed once more into the breach.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS- Edwards and Phil
Melissa McCarthy and Bill Barretta (via puppet) jaw about crime in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

The Idea Behind THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is the first puppet cop ever. And the last.

After failing to shoot a puppet holding his partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) hostage, Phillips was forced out of the department in disgrace. Adding insult to injury, his failure led to a law banning any future puppets from joining the police force. Now he makes his living as a puppet specific private investigator/vigilante, juggling his caseload with the help of his secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph).

Apparently, Los Angeles is home to most if not all of the world’s sentient puppet population. However, puppets exist as second class citizens. Consistently disrespected by human, life is a struggle for them. Jobs are hard to find, the people that will employ them often try to rip them off, and they are often murdered because their parts are considered good luck charms. Phillips is trying to be the one individual on the streets looking out for them.

In the midst of investigating another case, Phillips ends up in the back room of an adult bookstore as a quadruple murder occurs up front. Amongst the victims is Bumblepants (Kevin Clash), one of the stars of a beloved just syndicated TV series The Happytime Gang. The show proved wildly popular in its day and was the first mostly puppet program to break through.

When another HAPPYTIME star ends up dead, it becomes clear that the cast is being targeted. Phillips who counts his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) and his human ex-girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) as two of the cast members inserts himself in the case. This forces him to team back up with Edwards and in conflict with the FBI. Can he solve the case, save the people he loves, and stay out of jail for the crimes himself?

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The Writing

Brutal.

Just brutal.

The script from Todd Berger based on a story by himself and Dee Austin Robertson starts in a way that makes you think, “oh maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought.” However, it quickly becomes clear the sort of mediocre jokes it features in the first few minutes are the only jokes it has. They are what you are going to get, they are all you are going to get, for the next 80 minutes.

HAPPYTIME MURDERS basically finds its humor keys and plays just those notes over and over and over again. Do you think puppets swearing is funny? Will still think so after the 19th time a puppet swears? THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is gambling you will. I promise you, though, you will not.

I especially have to call out a repeated joke about Edwards looking like a man. First, I feel certain Melissa McCarthy has to experience enough body shaming to last eight lifetimes. Second, she looks nothing like a man. She has a feminine haircut and is always wearing makeup. I guess you could argue her wardrobe is a bit unisex but is not shapeless. It isn’t funny the first time and repetition makes it worse, not better.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS- Bubbles and Sandra White
Maya Rudolph does her best to ignore whatever exactly Dorien Davies (via puppet) is up to in a scene from THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Casting The Leads of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS

Look, puppeteers are awesome. Even if the words they are saying are repetitive and predictable, the way they can utilize their voice and their puppet to realize a performance is impressive. I struggle with how to accurately describe their work beyond technically well done though. The words and actions are just that bad.

McCarthy proves game as per usual. Especially impressive is her fight scenes. Everyone knows she can do pratfalls well but even with movies like SPY, it can be easy to forget she is physically gifted, period, not just in comedy. Still, even she can only do so much with garbage.

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Casting the Rest of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS Call Sheet

A couple of solid supporting players like Leslie David Baker as a lieutenant and Joel McHale as an FBI agent show up and are utterly wasted. Even Banks as Jenny the human star of Happytime Gang turned exotic dancer for…reasons? cannot turn the coal she is given into a diamond.

Amongst the supporting cast, Rudolph is the MVP. She creates an accurate noir stereotype of the secretary in love with her boss while still making smirking tweaks to the formula.

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS- Phil and Jenny
Bill Barretta (via puppet) and Elizabeth Banks commiserate over bad color jobs in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Filming

Again, from a technical standpoint, the way Brian Henson integrates puppets into live environments is well done. The whole thing feels static and flat, however, because the film is so sluggish and unmotivated.

Moreover, he can’t keep the reality of the world consistent. The film implies puppet hatred is rampant, but there is no sense of it as systemic. It only exists when the movie remembers it and stages direct person to puppet confrontations. In this kind of film, the world feeling integrated is key and the world of THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS never does.

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Striking the Set

As stuffed with otherwise useless material as a long rent puppet and twice as empty-headed. It’s very bad. Worse, it is very bad in the least interesting of ways.

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