Brian Henson is a man that probably helped shape a whole lot of childhoods. Taking up after his father, the late and legendary Jim Henson, the man responsible for creating The Muppets, the younger Henson directed movies like Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Now, he's decided to take some of his puppets, not Muppets, mind you, and place them in an R-rated setting with The Happytime Murders. The result? While many people who go to the movies looking for artistic value will surely walk away snubbing their nose at the final product, I must admit, nasty and crass puppets make me smile. Plus, despite the movie's best efforts to bury itself alive in filthy jokes, there is actually some deeper and more meaningful stuff going on here.
In The Happytime Murders, a former puppet cop named Phil Phillips must team up with his old partner Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) after having an ugly falling out years ago over a situation on the job went horribly wrong. They're forced to navigate the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles in order to solve a series of brutal murders of former cast members of a once-popular puppet TV show, with plenty of twists and turns along the way.
The Happytime Murders is, in many ways, a better noir crime drama than people might expect going into it. And that's surprising to say. I found myself actually focusing a lot more on that element of the movie once things actually got going. Brian Henson also manages to layer in some social commentary here. Again, with more tact than one would have expected after seeing a puppet "finish" for a minute straight in the trailer. Henson uses these puppets as a metaphor for inequality and racism in the real world. It works shockingly well on that level.
That being said, as one might expect, there is an avalanche of lowbrow puppet nonsense going on. This movie never tries to elevate the humor above surface level sight gags, foul language and one-offs. It's convincing Henson-style puppets being allowed to act this way for the first time ever on screen. The Muppets have had decades to try and be smart in a family friendly setting. The Happytime Murders has a license to let loose for the first time in the history of these puppets' existence and the creative team takes full advantage. Depending on your desire to see things like puppet pornogrophy, puppet drugs, puppet slang and a whole lot of puppet violence, this is either going to serve as something that gets old very quick or something that comes as a welcome change of pace.
One thing that feels refreshing here is Melissa McCarthy. For the last handful of years, it's felt very much like the actress has been relegated to studio comedies where here talents are squandered. If one must make an R-rated puppet comedy, McCarthy was the right human woman to hitch this wagon to. No matter what one feels about the movie overall, her charm and brand of talent does this movie some favors.
Also outside of the story and what is taking place on screen, which honestly just isn't going to be for a lot of people, it's hard not to be impressed with the craftsmanship going on. Brian Henson clearly took a lot of time making sure these puppets were worthy of his family's namesake. Crude as many of them may be, these puppets look fantastic. It also adds a much-needed layer. Many people who grew up watching similar puppets in PG movies will no doubt associate said puppets to these new stuffing-filled creations. We grew up and so did the puppets.
At the end of the day, this movie is what it is. You're either on board for these shenanigans or you're probably wondering why on Earth anyone felt the need to make this movie in the first place. It's puppets getting their jollies off, cursing and being every kind of gross one can imagine set within the context of a dramatic crime thriller. If you value movies as art above all else and regularly use words like "cinema" in conversation, there's probably not much here for you. But I get the sense that STX's puppet flick is going to find a lot of love out there from unpretentious moviegoers.