Remember when some people freaked out because the 2015 Muppet show was going to be more “adult” and we didn’t exactly know what that meant?
Those same people may be in danger of having a conniption after watching The Happytime Murders.
Back when we were all panicking/celebrating the upcoming Muppet show, there was an argument I made in regards to how the adult aspects could be handled by discussing the idea of ‘clever funny’. Basically, I said that this angle could be useful for giving the characters a chance to regain some dimension after years of recasting and being thrown around from project to project. I’ve always called Jim Henson’s brand of humour for the Muppets ‘clever funny’, because along with all the zaniness, music and explosions, there was a deeper meaning that ran through everything that gave the characters a sense of realism and life they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Am I going to compare The Happytime Murders to the Muppets? No.
Am I going to judge it as a Henson production? Hell yes. Henson Alternative may just be that: alternative, but it still falls under the umbrella of The Jim Henson Company and therefore I will treat it the same way I have for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth- with a grain of salt.
Right off the bat, one positive thing about the film is that the puppetry is outstanding and no featured puppeteer fell flat in their performance. I’ve never seen so many full-body shots and walking puppets before in any production similar and all of it is flawless. It caught me off guard a couple of times and I could’ve sworn that Phil Phillips was a short guy in a costume, ala how they did Jen the Gelfing, as Phil ran down a hallway or across the tarmac.
Nope! Just extraordinarily coordinated puppeteers doing what they do best.
Bill Barretta was right on form in the lead role and while I feared it was going to be a waste of his talents, there were a few moments where it was refreshing to see him step outside of the PG-rated sphere of his Muppet characters. It makes me hope to see more of him going solo in the spotlight more often in the future. Phil Phillips is a very stocky, solid puppet to work with, so the variety of expression which Bill got out of him was a fantastic effort. The fact that Phil also happens to be a free-handed puppet would have helped sustain a more off-the-cuff performance as well (not to mention probably helpful when it came to toting a gun or two).
Surprisingly, I must admit I enjoyed the chemistry between Phil Phillips and Melissa McCarthy as Connie Edwards. The audience is given just enough history to understand their dynamic and once you find out what broke them up, you’re kind of eager to see them resolve their differences. I’m not in the business of spoiling this movie for anyone who has a genuine interest in watching it, despite my reservations against it, so I won’t say much more other than for all the movie’s flaws, the two main characters are rather well conceived.
It’s the rest of the film that has me banging my head against the wall.
The whole reason I brought up the concept of ‘clever funny’ is because that, apart from a few rare moments, that is what this movie has a severe lack of. You come to expect it from the trailer alone, that the blue humour will take up the majority of the run-time, but there was still a tiny glimmer of hope in my funny bone that we’d end up with something risque, but with a strong moral undertones and values the audience could relate to and process as the story went along.
The story is there, but barely scratches the surface of having any true depth. There is the racial issue of puppets being treated like second-class citizens, reduced to becoming society’s drug addicts, prostitutes and day-to-day criminals because there is no other options for them in a world full of bigoted, prejudiced humans. That alone could have been a movie in itself, but it’s wasted on jokes and half-hearted inner-conflicts from the two leads. Gender roles, substance abuse, sexuality, the tragedy of fallen stardom, all very enticing subjects which get brushed off for silly-string cum-shots and carrot-shaped dildos.
Both of which, by the way, would actually be funny if they weren’t just small bits in a never-ending string of gags which scream ‘Wowie! Bet you’ve never seen a puppet do that before! Have you? I bet you haven’t! Shocking, isn’t it? Are you shocked? Are you? Is it funny? It’s funny isn’t it? Are you laughing? I bet you’re laughing!’
Crude jokes for laughs is just like eating chilli if you have a weak stomach; far more effective in moderation and less likely to end up on the crapper in the aftermath.
I suppose I could talk about the cinematography and soundtrack, but there’s not much more to say than the music was bland and typical of a buddy-cop film and the cinematography is pretty much the same as you would get from any Muppet or Sesame-based production.
In fear of going into a tangent, I will end this review with the following thought: the biggest disappointment is not that this movie exists, but that a far greater and more respectable movie could have existed in its place. The Jim Henson Company has delivered some incredible productions over the years and while I respect Brian Henson’s decision to try a new angle, perhaps this wasn’t the wisest direction to go in.
Perhaps someday we’ll get the amazing and intelligently funny, film noir puppet thriller I know a lot of us were truly hoping for.
On another note:
IGN actually has an interesting take on the film I hadn’t considered. Perhaps you’ll find it as thought-provoking as I did. I don’t particularly agree that this was the angle Henson was going for, but check it out anyway.