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Movie Review: ‘The Happytime Murders’ Combines Noir Mystery with Wonderfully Inventive Crude Puppet Gags

CREDIT: Hopper Stone/STXfilms

Starring: Bill Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale

Director: Brian Henson

Running Time: 91 Minutes

Rating: R for Raucous Puppet Sex, Loopy Puppet Drug Use, Constant Puppet and Human Profanity, and a Description of an Unspeakable Act Involving Rice Pilaf

Release Date: August 24, 2018

The advertising for The Happytime Murders has made a big deal about how out of the ordinary its existence is: puppets that are usually family-friendly about to get no-holds-barred dirty to an unprecedented degree! But the movie itself, with a typical noir-style murder mystery premise, is fairly unassuming. It’s not particularly hard-bitten, just accepting of the fact that certain and lewd and violent acts are known to happen in this world. It’s as if puppet-noir were a well-established cinematic genre, as Happytime Murders does not feel the need to explain itself, at least no more so than any other movie.

It is not as if audiences should be wholly unfamiliar with what director Brian Henson and company are trying to pull off, as Happytime has a great deal in common with a certain 1988 film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Both feature a human and a non-human partnering up to solve a series of murders that the non-human has been framed for, in a Los Angeles in which the human population lives uneasily alongside their neighbors from another medium. Both are more adult in their storytelling than the average Disney or Muppet concoction, but while Roger Rabbit is safe for most ages, Happytime decidedly is not. And while the latter can be enjoyed simply as a story of a cynical puppet private investigator trying to clear his name, the main reason to see it is why the kids cannot come.

The jokes about the anatomy, sexual predilections, and drug habits of puppets do not have the tenor of “Look how disgusting we can be!” Instead, they are the sort of clever, fully committed gags that examine a previously unexamined premise and then take the consequences to their most absurd conclusions. The climaxes are both explosive and filled with a deep well of laser-deployed knowledge. As P.I. Phil Philips, Bill Barretta (the current performer of Muppets like Swedish Chef and Pepe) gives about as much depth as possible to a puppet character. His crackling banter with Melissa McCarthy is filled with a loopy zest that can only come from looking at an askew world and keeping a straight face. Every cast member realizes something important, and it is why Happytime works as well as it does: this is all very silly, but we must commit to everything like the joy of the world depends on it.

The Happytime Murders is Recommended If You Like: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, A femme fatale walking into a P.I. office, The Muppets, Spy, The Heat

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Puppet Carpets Matching the Drapes

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