In the pre-internet days, it was quite a novelty to see characters aimed at kids (cartoons or puppets mainly) engaging in things that would never be allowed in a kids' show or movie such as swearing, having sex or committing graphic acts of violence. When the trailer for The Happytime Murders appeared online this summer however, I got the impression that its makers thought they were being really edgy but what I saw seemed to be just a re-hash of things that had been done before. I still wanted to see it as it was probably still funny, but it just seemed that those behind it thought a lot more of it than it was worthy of. I figured that second-rate talent was likely behind it, but my eyebrows raised quite a bit when I realized it was directed by none other than Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson. That seemed to me like someone with a connection to Disney directing Fritz the Cat or a similar animated movie with strictly adult content. I figured that if nothing else, this was gonna be interesting.
This movie takes place in a world where puppets live and function on their own, without human intervention, but live alongside them- a concept that isn't new at all. Some get along, others have racist-like feelings towards the other group- also nothing new. The main character is a puppet named Phil Phillips (voiced and puppeteered by Bill Barretta), a Los Angeles private investigator who provides narration for much of the film. We soon learn that he was the first and only puppet cop, but was kicked off the force after making a mistake in the line of duty. We also learn about a popular TV show called "The Happytime Gang" which has since gone off the air and its cast members living rather washed-up lives, but someone begins systematically killing them off one by one. Phil's former human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) investigates these killings and Phil is called on to help her with this after his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid), one of the show's stars, is mauled to death by a pack of dogs.
This leads the two of them to investigate the still-living cast members and stop their possible murder, as well as figure out who is behind it and what their motive is. This leads them to a number of sleazy places such as a gambling hall, strip club and abandoned buildings occupied by vagrants, all of which provide ample chances for the puppet characters to do the unsavory things that this movie promises. A few of these setups are pretty funny for those with sick senses of humor, such as a trip to a porno shop where everything is aimed at a perverted puppet audience- a highlight is a porn video being shot there of a cow enjoying being milked by an octopus (in the commentary track, Henson says this gag was inspired by the fact that dairy cows really do enjoy being milked, and might get off from watching such a video.) Some feel a bit more forced however, such as many of the "junkie" puppet characters being addicted to sugar- somehow this is what cocaine is to humans. One of the washed-up stars drunkenly offers sexual favors for money, and this is where it seems the filmmakers think they're being a lot more funny than they actually are. A puppet shouting "F--- you!" within the first few minutes has the same effect- the world has just reached the point where that's not at all shocking anymore. After all, we've already seen Peter Jackson's over-the-top Muppet spoof Meet the Feebles and before that was the X-rated Let My Puppets Come (a movie I'd love to have on Blu-Ray, not quite so funny either but a bit more audacious for its time) in the 70s.
The Happytime Murders does get a bit of credit for playing in a mostly straightforward manner, with no nods or winks to the camera nor breaking out into any musical numbers- instead it's treated like a serious detective story with all of the human cast keeping straight faces through everything- even carrying on a police-related conversation while two puppets loudly have sex in an adjacent room. (This is yet another bit that seems aimed to get huge laughs from the audience, but is honestly just something we've seen before.) Christopher Lennertz's music score keeps the tone of a thriller rather than a comedy. McCarthy gets plenty of profane reactions from various puppets, but she just spews more profanity back at them. One element that sets it apart from other "Muppets" and similar films is that these puppets exist in plain view, walking and such without any obvious setups to hide the puppeteers- outtakes during the movie's end credits as well as the disc's extras show that this was accomplished mainly by having the characters manipulated by several people wearing green outfits, which were then removed in post-production.
Shot digitally in a 2.35 ratio, the Blu-Ray disc looks clean enough to show all the details of the puppets but no revealing ‘mistakes' giving away their being an illusion. I spotted just a hint of banding in one dark scene, but overall this looks as good as it deserves to. The bright color scheme sort of counteracts the ‘gritty' atmosphere that they seemed to be going for. A standard DVD is also included, which looks adequate for that format but not really up to today's standards.
Audio on the Blu-Ray is 7.1 DTS Master Audio (5.1 Dolby Digital on the DVD) and provides a good soundstage, with ambient sounds and police helicopters approaching in the surround channels with some of the music score mixed in the rears as well. Dialogue is mostly centered, but clear. Both discs include hearing-impaired English and standard Spanish subtitles.
The main extra here is a commentary track with Brian Henson and voice actor/puppeteer Bill Barretta. They mention several times that many scenes were improvised, which isn't done very often in movies that use puppets. There's also plenty of acknowledgement of how "great" the cast was, but Henson doesn't really explain what compelled him to do this movie after the family-friendly ones he did before. He does mention that his company has launched a brand called "Henson Alternative" which will focus on projects not suitable for kids- let's just hope that they will have more of a point and aren't just vulgar for vulgarity's sake which gets old pretty fast.
There's also about 15 minutes of deleted scenes (many with unfinished effects), a gag reel, "Line-O-Rama" where we get to hear some of the other dialogue that was improvised, and 3 short segments revealing the visual effects- many scenes were done in "virtual environments" shot on green screens with all backgrounds added via computer, and puppets were computer animated in some shots where the use of actual ones wouldn't have been doable. Finally we get both red and green-band trailers for the movie (the green-band meaning has changed in recent years, this one I'd still be afraid to show with any movie rated less than R) and both discs open with a mixture of short TV spots and full-length trailers for Mile 22, Peppermint, Papillon, Black Klansman, Operation Finale and Destination Wedding. Incidentally, the Blu-Ray includes the most creative region code screen I've ever seen, worth the effort to check out if you have a region-switchable player.
The Happytime Murders is good for a few cheap laughs, but that's about it. It would be more passable as a B-movie than a large release with such talent behind it- bottom line is that you get the feeling that this movie thinks it's a lot funnier and edgier than it really is. The "No Sesame, All Street" tagline sums it up for better or worse- interestingly the producers of the real Sesame Street sued over this being in the trailers but it's made it to the front cover of this release.