Masturbator of Puppets

Directed by Brian Henson

Starring Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph

Released August 24th, 2018

Rated R 


Brian Henson, son of Jim and director of The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, has been trying to get Happytime Murders made for the last ten years. Originally conceived as a serious murder mystery ala L.A. Confidential that just happened to star puppets, the project languished in Development Hell for a decade, with Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl attached and then dropping out of the project. The idea of a film noir with puppets is intriguing, reminiscent of a 2007 book by Tim Davys called Amberville, concerning death in a town populated by stuffed animals. Numerous re-writes and a decade later, here we have The Happytime Murders starring Melissa McCarthy, now a raunchy, R-rated comedy.

It’s rare that I want to walk out of movie screenings, but The Happytime Murders is so cringe-inducing I found myself wanting to do anything except continue watching the film.

Bill Barretta is a veteran puppeteer who has performed many Muppets including The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, and Pepe the Prawn. Here he is Phil Phillips, a blue puppet who was the first and last puppet police officer, having been fired after failing to shoot a puppet perp. Humans jumped to the conclusion that a puppet wouldn’t shoot another puppet (I guess there’s no puppet-on-puppet crime in this universe?) and enacted a law stating no puppets can ever be cops again. 

Phil now works as a private eye. His secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), is a sweet, if spacey, human who obviously has feelings for her boss. As the cast of a popular puppet show from years ago, The Happytime Gang, are being murdered one by one, Phil is reunited with his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and his ex-lover Jenny (Elizabeth Banks) to investigate the case.

Unlike Peter Jackson’s low budget Meet the Feebles, the puppet effects in this film are second-to-none, very much in the vein of the Children’s Television Workshop, who actually sued HA (Henson Alternative) for using the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.” in promotions. A judge dismissed the case. There are very talented people working on this unfunny and monotonous film, including Kevin Clash, who was the voice and performer of Sesame Street’s Elmo for many years before resigning from the Children’s Television Workshop over sexual assault allegations. In The Happytime Murders, Kevin is the voice and performer of a rabbit with a porn addiction named Mr. Bumblypants, as well as acting as the Puppet Captain for the production. I find it interesting that this is the project Mr. Clash chose with which to make his comeback. 

Watching this movie, one longs for the nuance of a similar noir-comedy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  In that film, we got to know the characters very well, we understood how humans felt about toons, and the stakes were high. When an animated shoe was killed early on, audiences were horrified. When a puppet in The Happytime Murders is killed, it’s played for laughs as the felt flies everywhere. Unlike well-written projects like Avenue Q, Team America: World Police, and Sausage Party, The Happytime Murders’ tone is so ill-conceived it becomes a chore to sit through. It’s scene after scene of puppets swearing. That’s it. It’s rare that I want to walk out of movie screenings, but The Happytime Murders is so cringe-inducing I found myself wanting to do anything except continue watching the film. 

Watching The Happytime Murders is like attending a therapy session with Brian Henson. Growing up in the world of The Muppets has to affect your psyche and the desire to make puppets do naughty things is both natural and funny. I imagine puppeteers have always done profane things with their puppets behind the scenes to crack each other up, but putting such things on display for 85 minutes is the definition of beating a dead horse.