Phil Philips and Elizabeth Banks in The Happytime Murders (Photo: STX)

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Brian Henson
STARS Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta

A clever concept gets off to a roaring start before eventually losing its way in The Happytime Murders, a puppet pageantry that is most decidedly not one for the whole family to enjoy.

Brian Henson, son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson and a Muppet veteran in his own right, and screenwriter Todd Berger, whose credits include the likes of The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow and Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five, clearly wanted to take a break from comparatively benign projects and push the envelope when it came to puppet reproduction on screen. Of course, Team America: World Police and Meet the Feebles have already been there, done that, but The Happytime Murders more closely resembles (in structure if not quality) the brilliant Who Framed Roger Rabbit insofar as it’s a Tinseltown-set murder-mystery in which humans and nonhumans can be found uneasily commingling.

Here, it’s puppets that live alongside people, and for the first half-hour, Berger and co-scripter Dee Austin Robertson slyly craft a meaningful message movie as puppets are treated by many humans as second-class citizens and subject to frequent instances of police brutality. (As an exclamation mark on the analogies, there’s even a celebrity puppet who goes the Michael Jackson route with the bleaching and the nose job.)

Unfortunately, any interest in social criticism gets chucked out the window as the movie continues, with all subtext completely abandoned as the filmmakers become increasingly interested in only offering vulgar gags. Some are quite funny while others are quite flaccid, though there’s no telling which gags will work for which viewers. For example, a restaging of the Sharon Stone no-panties scene from Basic Instinct allows audiences a peek at puppet pudenda — if that strikes you as the height of hilarity, then knock yourself out.

The plot concerns the stars of the vintage television sitcom The Happytime Gang being systematically murdered by an unknown assailant. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced puppet cop now working as a private eye, becomes personally involved with the case, meaning that he must again join forces with his former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to solve the mystery. Along the way, Phil visits a porn shop specializing in such titles as Little Kitties with Big Titties, gets reacquainted with an old (human) girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) who co-starred on The Happytime Gang, and receives invaluable assistance from his loyal receptionist Bubbles (Maya Rudolph).

Visually, The Happytime Murders is a seamless production, with the blending of the human and puppet protagonists executed flawlessly (the closing credits allow viewers to check out some of the behind-the-scenes magic). The mystery is also fairly well-executed (if holding no real surprises), and comediennes like McCarthy and Rudolph are allowed moments to shine. But really, everything is mainly just an excuse for audiences to see puppets curse, drink, take drugs, and have sex. So if watching felt characters get felt up sounds like a winning proposition, The Happytime Murders might just be the ticket. More cautious viewers might prefer to stick with straight shooters like Kermit, Big Bird and even that questionable Gonzo.


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