An early pilot for The Muppet Show was subtitled Sex & Violence. This title was not included when Jim Henson’s puppet variety show became a star-studded five-season sensation in international syndication, and in general The Muppet Show proceeded as something families could watch together. A toddler could comfortably watch most of the show’s segments; many have, and will. But the reason toddlers might still watch The Muppet Show is because it has long appealed to adults, both now (when those adults may have nostalgic memories of watching it as children) and when it aired (when a show would need more than just some children’s eyeballs to become a five-season international-syndication sensation).
At the risk of sounding like that guy, the notion of affable and adorable puppets doing comedy for adults is not counter to the Muppets; in a large part, it is the Muppets. Granted, the Muppets never indulged in salty language or explicit sex scenes. But if the supposed incongruity of those actions constitute a cheap laugh, what kind of laugh is a puppet pig karate-chopping a puppet frog? Isn’t funny in part because the pig puppet is acting like an angry human? And isn’t there an enormous cult of appreciation around Team America: World Police in part because it does feature puppets doing things we don’t expect puppets to do?
This functions as both a defense and a knock on The Happytime Murders, a new movie by Jim Henson’s son Brian, who previously directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. The new movie, I should say, is not as funny as either of Brian Henson’s Muppet movies from the ’90s, and those movies are not as funny as either the first three movies produced while Jim Henson was alive, or the other two movies produced this past decade, after the characters were sold to Disney. Coming from the Henson Alternative label, Happytime Murders is very much premised on the idea that puppets doing drugs, shooting guns, swearing, and fucking, is pretty funny and critics have very much responded in kind with disdain over a movie that thinks so little of its audience.
And yeah, like I said: The Happytime Murders is not very funny. But at the promotional screening I attended, the recruited audience roared with laughter for many of its big scenes, particularly an explicit and especially perverse glimpse into an amateur porno shoot starring a puppet cow. I’m not saying the critics have been overruled by gales of laughter, but I am suggesting that yeah, maybe a lot of people think cute little puppets doing “bad” stuff is pretty funny.
I don’t think it’s entirely base instincts, either. (Though the stale Basic Instinct gag is, indeed, one that really connected with the crowd.) The Muppets do some funny verbal jokes, but what often makes them especially funny, beyond the considerable expressive skill of the performers, is how their design interacts with those performances: the curls and contortions of Kermit the Frog’s simple mouth, the furry, furrowing brow of Animal, or the intentionally one-note implacability of bit characters like Lew Zealand. Even a Muppet like Walter, seemingly designed for 2011’s The Muppets to look as generic as possible, can come alive when his face crumples in horror and panic.
For fans of neat-looking puppets, The Happytime Murders has some real novelty. The proper Muppets have been on ice in terms of theatrical films, and the recent ones, great as they are, have focused primarily on the classic characters (plus Walter), only occasionally folding in characters as recent as those created for Muppets Tonight! back in 1996. The Happytime Murders, in imagining an alternate Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style Los Angeles where puppets live and work alongside humans but constitute a much-abused second class of citizen, offers plenty of assignments to gifted puppet designers and performers, ranging from standard-issue cute bunnies to a scraggly gang of criminal misfits varying in shape and size.
This makes it especially irritating when the design work does not extend to Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta), the puppet ex-cop lead character. Philips is working as a semi-disreputable private eye when one of his cases gets entangled with policework from his former partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), and they reluctantly team back up to solve a series of murders. Though Barretta is one of the best later-period Muppet performers, responsible for several memorable additions to the Muppet cast like Pepe the Prawn and Bobo the Bear, Philips leaves him hamstrung in a too-straight leading role. Philips is disheveled and swears. He’d make an OK riff on a stock character-actor part, but he has none of the charisma associated with even a low-rent P.I. in the kind of movie Happytime Murders thinks it’s spoofing. The movie acts like a lumpish, disinterested, sleep-eyed detective for a main character is a classic noir trope.
This points to a problem that’s arguably bigger than the lamer comedic moments: Happytime Murders has very little feel for detective movies, and throws together a boilerplate plot not unlike the kind of copy-of-a-copy sorta-spoof you’d see in a Sesame Street segment. Unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the details of the human/puppet world haven’t been explored with any thought, starting with why they’re called “puppets” if they don’t ever have anyone operating them. The barely-worth-describing story has Philips investigating the murder of his brother and other cast members on the nostalgically beloved TV show The Happytime Gang, but even the show itself is confusing: Is it supposed to be an innocuous kiddie show, the kind of thing people still associate with cute puppets? Is it this world’s version of a sitcom, complete with semi-lascivious catch phrases? Is the presence of one human star (played by Elizabeth Banks) supposed to indicate that this is kind of a Muppet Show situation? What actually happens on this show?
It seems like a small detail, but that lack of care is visible all over this movie. I think that Melissa McCarthy’s character develops a crippling sugar addiction after some puppets force her to snort super-sugary drugs to prove that she does, in fact, have a puppet liver (and accompanying tolerance for their drugs), but the movie does plenty to also make it seem like she was maybe already a hopeless sugar addict (and not in an amusingly ambiguous way, either). Similarly, part of the Phil Philips backstory is that he was run off the force over an incident where he missed a shot taken at a puppet suspect, prompting an outcry over the first puppet cop being unwilling to take down one of his own. But doesn’t the fact that his bullet hit and killed another, innocent puppet (a major plot point) effectively eliminate the possibility that he was missing on purpose? And if the public is generally callous about the fates of puppets, why do they care so much about an incident that involved no harm coming to any humans?
No, these things would not nag so heavily if the movie were funnier, but they’re more galling than an extended gag about Philips ejaculating what looks like Silly String. (I’m sorry, that’s kind of funny, though as with all of its ideas, the movie never really digs into why puppets are supposed to be all sugar and silly string by nature.) Happytime Murders has its moments: a scene where Edwards teams up with Philips’ long-suffering secretary puts Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph, however briefly, into a buddy-comedy situation, and some of the riffy side characters recall funny Muppet walk-ons and side characters, working blue. But Henson is so busy devising new ways for puppets to explode or ejaculate that he doesn’t give either his puppet or his human performers much breathing room—or rather, when he does give them breathing room, it fills with dead air. Barretta and McCarthy are both gifted improvisers, and Henson even worked in puppet improve with the adult-oriented live show Puppet Up! So why is The Happytime Murders both weirdly slapdash in conception and weirdly constricted in execution? The Muppets may have been gradually rebranded as family entertainment, but Muppets Most Wanted still has wildly funnier jokes than this movie. Henson may be trying to gleefully separate his current work from the likes of Muppet Treasure Island, but despite all the sex and violence, Happytime Murders still plays, in a perverse way, like a kiddie picture.