The marketing for the ‘The Happytime Murders’ would have you believe it’s a fresh take on how we look at puppets by presenting them in an adult comedy, yet the film’s plot is a rehash of countless Gumshoe movies.
That would be okay if there was more to the film but there is not much.
The story follows cynical former cop turned private eye and puppet Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) investigating with his former partner LAPD Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) a series of murders.
The murders bring up painful links to his past around a TV show his brother starred in and a time when he was a different type of puppet. It is all here, a hollowed out alcoholic hero with a heart of gold just dying to redeem himself even if he doesn’t know it, his reliable assistant that he takes for granted (Maya Rudolph elevating every scene she is in), two bickering partners, a love story gone sour, a femme fatale and a history that offers clues to the present.
At first the film entertains by putting puppets in these old situations with variations, gruesome murders play different when felt and feathers rather than flesh and blood is involved and a visit to a sex shop early on produces some guilty chuckles. To their credit, the filmmakers play all of this straight with some of the same camera angles, editing techniques and music cues we’ve become accustomed to. This allows the comedy and drama to stay intact throughout. There is pointed commentary about prejudices since in this world puppets are an underclass who historically kept to their own. Melissa too gets some shots in at those who disrespect women at their own peril.
The puppetry and voice work from Brian Henson and company is solid, giving us very well-rounded performances, in particular Bill Barretta fully realises Phil Philips. We do come to care about the characters and how it is going to turn out for them but given the predictability of the plot we have a good idea it will.
That leaves the comedy, with sadly the big laughs few and far between. There is some good, dumb, adolescent humour to be sure but not much that is truly inspired. It seems to be stuff like 'rabbit puppets would be into porn' because, you know… Rabbits. There is even a scene where people just repeat the “loser says what?” joke as if it gets funnier if you run it into the ground. It doesn’t. One of the better laughs involves a reliable cameo from someone that always pops up in a Melissa McCarthy film, which says something. Director Paul Feig is sorely needed because he tends to bring out the best in Melissa who remains a clear talent both in physical comedy and wordplay improvisation.
‘The Happytime Murders’ treads a familiar path, failing to bring a lot that is new besides muppets behaving badly. Yes, the characters are likeable, some laughs are had and the two hours pass by amiably enough, yet the potential of the premise is sadly under-realised here.