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The Happytime Murders turns raunchy puppet comedy into inexplicably boring dreck

It’s a strong contender for worst movie of the year.

Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders
Melissa McCarthy cannot save this movie.
STX Entertainment
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Like all ghastly failures, The Happytime Murders is not “so bad it’s good.” It’s just bad: a boring flop, an unfunny comedy where nothing’s at stake. The plot is shot through with inexplicable inconsistencies, and the jokes and quips are so leaden that they thud like flamed-out turds.

If you’re feeling too optimistic about the world, then it’s the film to see.

Certainly “puppets, but dirty” has been done before, but never this stupidly. The movie’s sole virtue is its short runtime — it barely reaches an hour and a half — but it outstays its welcome long before it reaches the end. There’s some notable comedic talent onscreen, particularly Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, and Maya Rudolph, but they’re wasted on a halfhearted premise, sluggish pacing, and slapdash execution.

Let me put it this way: If the demons in the Bad Place made movies, they’d make this one, and then probably brag about how bad the reviews were to sell some more tickets, and the whole point would be to torture you and me.

Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders
The range of faces made during watching this film.
STX Entertainment

The Happytime Murders thinks some spiritless sex jokes are enough for a hilarious comedy

When Jim Henson came up with Muppets, he was trying to make TV puppets that could have a wide array of emotions. What he came up with was a cloth-covered foam rubber puppet that seemed to be talking and emoting in ways that were familiar to humans, but not so human-like that they were creepy.

The result has always been pretty funny, and occasionally touching too. Puppets and people living alongside one another, without anyone really acknowledging how strange it is that these puppets move around freely, makes everyone laugh. Henson’s creations entertain everybody, in both innocently wholesome ways (as on Sesame Street) and slightly more grown-up but still generally PG-rated ways (as on The Muppet Show).

The idea of dirty Muppets is funny partly because so many of us spent our childhoods with squeaky-clean Muppets on Sesame Street teaching us the alphabet and basic Spanish and the rules of kindness and sharing. Transgressive Muppets and Muppet-like puppets that are mean and misanthropic and sexual and otherwise deviant are a shocking inversion of that. We’re inclined to laugh because the juxtaposition is weird and aberrant and a little shocking. That’s worked for movies like Meet the Feebles and musicals like Avenue Q.

But “puppets, only dirty” isn’t enough to hang a movie on, any more than “female protagonists, only dirty” is a surefire home run. The Happytime Murders is (purportedly) a movie, so it needs things like setup, characters, plot, dialogue, and narrative payoff. Maybe try to throw in some funny situations here and there that will surprise the audience and make them chuckle. You know. Make a movie.

The rabbit and the P.I. in a puppet porn shop.
The rabbit and the P.I. in a puppet porn shop.
STX Entertainment

I don’t know what happened with The Happytime Murders — especially since the screenplay was reportedly in development for a decade — but everyone involved seems to have forgotten what a movie is.

Directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim — who has directed a few features before, including The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, and a lot of Muppet-driven TV — and drawn from a story and script by Todd Berger, The Happytime Murders sets itself up as a riff on detective noir. But the attempt never goes beyond the most surface-level homage, resulting in something herky-jerky and listless, incapable of doing anything interesting with its eye-catching premise.

The story concerns an LA private investigator named Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta), the first puppet on the LAPD before he was booted from the force after being accused of purposely failing to shoot a puppet perp. Now working from his own practice on the edge of Chinatown with a non-puppet secretary named Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), he finds himself caught up in a case in which the stars of a children’s TV show led by a woman named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) from decades earlier start to turn up dead, one by one, blown to fluff by a mysterious assassin. At the same time, he’s hired to solve a case of blackmail for a (puppet) femme fatale, who’s also a raging nymphomaniac.

In an unhappy fluke, Philips becomes a consultant to the LAPD on the case, and is paired with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy, whose appearance in this film just makes me sad), to solve it before even more puppets are killed. It is not, shall we say, a happy time.

Actually, “not a happy time” is too gentle — this movie is a drag.

There’s a lot wrong with The Happytime Murders, but its cardinal sin is that it’s not funny

As The Happytime Murders unwinds its plot, it makes less and less sense. That’s not because, in the manner of classic sunshine noir, it turns out that things are more complicated than they seem; it’s because as Philips and Edwards solve the mystery, some glaring plot holes turn up that seem due more to shoddy writing and editing than forethought and philosophical investigation.

But look, it’s puppets. Obviously not everything needs to make sense.

The puppet and the former TV star (Elizabeth Banks) in The Happytime Murders.
The puppet and the former TV star (Elizabeth Banks) in The Happytime Murders.
STX Entertainment

This is, however, supposed to be a comedy, which means it needs some kind of humor to stay afloat. Sadly, this is not the kind of comedy that seeks to deliver clever jokes or quippy one-liners; this is the sort of movie that sets a very long scene in a porn/sex shop for puppets (involving graphic depictions of several different fetishes) and leaves the “joke” at that. It’s not just annoying, it’s also interminable.

In fact, most of the scenes involving sexual humor — like one in which silly string is a stand-in for an enormous quantity of a certain ejaculatory bodily fluid — seem to have been edited with the knowledge that this situation is way less funny than it should be, and therefore the scene has to be extended as long as possible to bludgeon us into finally laughing. (We also get several pantyless crotch shots of a female puppet, lots of drug use, and ... well, I guess what I am saying is please, please do not bring your children.)

Melissa McCarthy is technically a co-star in this movie, and though her steady output has been uneven at times, she’s one of the most talented and bankable performers in the business and a reliably funny comedic actor, particularly in female-driven raunchy comedies.

So why, then, does the movie treat her as second fiddle? There are occasional sparks of cleverness — one scene in which she and Maya Rudolph get to play off each other for a bit while breaking into an apartment has the feel of a buddy comedy we’d actually want to watch — but she’s a definite accessory to her not-at-all-funny puppet partner Philips, and the movie feels off-kilter as a result, like it got edited wrong.

The screenplay feels strangely distracted, too. In its early scenes, the movie seems to want — in the manner of the similarly soul-draining Bright — to use different species (elves, orcs, fairies, puppets) and their relationships with humankind to say something about race and policing. In this case, the puppets are maligned and mistreated by humans; the entire film seems set up as a comment on misconceptions about puppet-on-puppet violence.

The PI and the dame in The Happytime Murders
The PI and the dame.
STX Entertainment

This is already, at best, a very unsteady plot device (issues around race and policing are still about humans, for one thing). But at least Bright has the decency to keep up the theme through its entire runtime. The Happytime Murders introduces it for the first act, then more or less dumps it entirely, apparently to make room for more extended sex jokes that go nowhere.

The Happytime Murders will doubtless garner comparisons to Sausage Party, the 2016 raunchy animated hit about horny groceries. Like or hate that film, it had both an idea in its head (about religion and pluralism) and a lot of hilariously crude originality.

But The Happytime Murders seems to have recycled ideas from other raunchy puppet movies, filtered them through layers of garbage and dreck, slapped on the least imaginative noir trappings possible, and then lifelessly insisted we had better laugh, because here is another puppet making a penis joke. You know what kind of time you’ll have.

The Happytime Murders slinks into theaters on August 24.