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Happytime Murders, The

Entry updated 16 April 2022. Tagged: Film.

US film (2018). STX, H. Brothers, Black Bear Pictures, DMP, Henson Alternative, On the Day Pictures. Directed by Brian Henson. Written by Todd Berger. Cast includes Elizabeth Banks, Brian Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Joel McHale and Maya Rudolph. 91 minutes. Colour.

Former detective Phil Phillips (Barretta) suspects that there is more to a porn store "robbery" than the authorities have realized. Reluctantly teaming up with his former partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy), he pieces together a conspiracy to murder the cast of a much-loved children's television show from the 1980s, The Happytime Gang, the members of which have signed contracts that allow their share of the residuals to be shared among their surviving colleagues in the event of their death.

Much as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) derived its sense of the fantastic from the off-hand way it integrated animation and film noir, The Happytime Murders spools out a mundane detective plot, in which a private investigator is confronted by, and ultimately defeats, the demons of his earlier fall from grace, but set in a world shared by puppets (Phil) and humans (Connie). It derives its Sense of Wonder in part from the technical achievement of using green-screen technology to create this situation, the materiality of which is celebrated during the credits in an extended set of making-of outtakes. But it also challenges an audience used to feel-good children's films with the sight of puppets as allegories for racial minorities, hapless low-lifers and the criminal underclass – a scabrous and irreverent tone that often borders on the pornographic, and led to legal action by the producers of Sesame Street after trailers for the film mentioned the name of the Henson Company's educational series.

The Happytime Murders is plainly intended to shock, and derives much of its humour from the incongruous use of puppets in an R-rated story, in which police officers with straight faces investigate the murder of a rabbit called Mr Bumblypants, and the grand guignol of splatter movies and erotica is replayed for laughs with stuffing, cloth and Silly String. The script is particularly creative in its imagining of the slang of a puppet Wainscot Society – in one of the more printable allusions, two hookers offer a passer-by the chance to indulge in some "rotten cotton". It hangs a lantern on its own inadequacies, striving to be a bad crime movie that is itself a Parody of a bad crime movie, particularly with regard to the lead's backstory, in which a single incident supplies not only his ejection from the LAPD, but also his co-star's puppet liver transplant (and subsequent sugar addiction), and the defining motive for the murderer: a bisexual nymphomaniac determined to avenge her father's death in an accidental shooting. Curiously, it seems to derive much of its expectations of its own reception from a tensely narrow, and possibly impossible generational focus – viewers too young to have seen the aspirationally similar Team America: World Police (2004), but also old enough to fondly remember The Muppet Show (1974-1981) and crime capers like Basic Instinct (1992), one infamous scene from which is replayed here as a crucial plot point. It might also be noted that much of the more Postmodern humour of the film, albeit not quite so calculatedly edgy, was prefigured in the mainstream release The Muppets (2011), which similarly reimagined some cast members as fallen on hard times or otherwise marginalized in the post-celebrity world.

Whereas The Muppets was garlanded with awards, including an Oscar for Best Song, The Happytime Murders was only recognized by the Houston Film Critics Society as "Best Worst Film", while at the Golden Raspberries it was nominated for, among others, Worst Director, Worst Picture, and Worst Screenplay. Considering that much of the film's raison d'être was to disrupt the imagery and memes of viewers' childhoods, with a blunt and obvious analogy of Race in SF (see also Alien Nation), such brickbats seem somewhat over-compensatory and possibly vengeful. The Golden Raspberry dished out to Melissa McCarthy as Worst Actress seems particularly unjust, since whatever one may think of the sullying of puppet icons, her deadpan and dedicated performance throughout is a lynchpin that anchors the ludicrous and revolting images onscreen. [JonC]


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