The easiest way to process the abject failure of The Happytime Murders is to know that those Taco Bell “nacho fries” commercials are more successful conceptually than this movie. Purely on the basis of comparing similarly threadbare concepts, the nacho fry commercials – presented as trailers for a conspiracy theory thriller that will (prayerfully) never actually exist as a movie – are self-aware enough to stay in their lane. It’s a one-note concept that is contained within a series of one-note ad spots. My guess is, were The Happytime Murders to play out as a series of vignettes as part of a broader variety series on late night cable, it would be more successful, maybe even a highlight. Instead, it’s a feature film.
Not to besmirch the word “film,” or to at all imply that what Happytime projects onto the screen at all functions as a film, but ya know, the literal format is the literal format. In isolated chunks, this sort of subversion of pure childhood entertainment can certainly work. I know because I watched this movie’s trailer and was momentarily amused by its overt transgressiveness. So it should be noted that, if you go into The Happytime Murders without having seen the trailer, you are in for a guaranteed two-and-a-half minutes of solid gold comedy.
Remember those goofy scenes from Sesame Street in which celebrities stood awkwardly behind purposeful blockades interacting with the jabbering puppets? Stretch that awkwardness for almost 90 minutes and you have The Happytime Murders, except instead of counting to 12 and finding words that start with the letter E, the conversations center around exploding puppet heads and puppet torture porn. If that sounds like your idea of a great night at the movies, then apparently you are in alignment with the puppeteers at The Jim Henson Company, among whom the concept of “Muppets Raw and Uncensored” has been kicking around for the better part of a decade. But some inside jokes stay inside for a reason, and The Happytime Murders is that reason.
In essence, the film operates as if the mere concept of “what if the Muppets cursed and drank and murdered and had sex” was itself a punchline, and the screenplay regurgitates that same punchline 100 times over the course of 90 minutes. I’m not offended by the content so much as the idea that the content alone is funny. Sin itself isn’t this movies greatest sin, laziness is. So maybe it’s not the concept that’s flawed, but the execution. After all, there have actually been successful long-form subversions of family-friendly puppet norm. Jason Segel’s 2011 The Muppets reboot was wondrous, though its subversion was merely self-reflexivity as opposed to full-on transgressive nastiness. Avenue Q was so brilliant it won the Tony for Best Musical within the apparent Puppets for Adults sub-genre. But those works understood their formal environments and cared about their characters. In The Happytime Murders, the characters are a means to an end: “how many lewd acts can we make these non-descript puppets do before the credits roll?”
Left hanging out to dry as a result are a bunch of great comedic talents who could have soared if only they had material to work with. Melissa McCarthy is the headliner, made to perform her base-level shtick as a cop investigating a string of murders of the puppet stars from a legendary Saturday morning TV show. Her puppet partner is voiced Bill Barretta, one of the Muppet greats, himself uniquely betrayed here not only by a one-note Private Eye framework but by functioning as the film’s singular representation of would-be social advocacy. In the film’s merged world of humans and puppets, the latter are treated as Other, though rather than letting that become an important theme of the narrative, The Happytime Murders uses it as an excuse to make casual race-baiting jokes. Amid the lazy lewdness and reckless ignorance, one big-name supporting cast member after another, from Maya Rudolph to Elizabeth Banks to Joel McHale, pop in to deliver a string of flimsy puns and stand around looking upon the puppet mayhem, appearing uncomfortable and slightly appalled.
On that last note, they are not alone.