I’m not quite sure how to prepare you for how awful The Happytime Murders is. Should I tell you about the scene in the R-rated Muppets movie where a puppet octopus rigorously strokes the udders of a moaning puppet cow as milk squirts all over the back of a porn studio? Maybe I should warn you that this movie includes not one, but two close-ups of a puppet’s felt vagina, and said genitals aren’t just there for laughs (none of which were heard in my screening, by the way), but as a crucial plot point? How about the scene where Melissa McCarthy bites a puppet’s penis? Perhaps now is the time to tell you that the raunchy Muppet buddy cop comedy draws parallels between the fuzzy characters, who are depicted as second-class citizens, and the very real discrimination and harassment experienced by people of color.

After decades of Jim Henson’s Muppets serving as a source of family-friendly entertainment, the creator’s son, Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island), has decided to rip the parental controls off the G-rated franchise. That in itself isn’t an entirely disagreeable idea. After all, merging adult themes and mature humor in a medium often aimed at children can have great results — just consider the best of Family Guy and South Park, Team America, or even how BoJack Horseman brings brilliant, poignant stories about depression and alcoholism into the animated genre.

The film’s premise suggests some humorous potential for the shenanigans that can ensue between humans and puppets when you remove kid-friendly filters. Set in a world where “fleshies” (as humans are called) and puppets co-exist, it follows a washed-up P.I. named Phil Phillips (voiced and animated by puppeteer Bill Burretta). Phil used to be a LAPD detective before he accidentally shot an unarmed bystander. (To make the film’s political allusions even more uncomfortable, the blue-skinned puppets like Phil are loosely likened to folks of color, while the man he shot is a white-skinned, human-looking puppet. Hm.) Phil soon teams up with his old partner, Melissa McCarthy’s Detective Connie Edwards, when a masked murderer starts targeting the former puppet and human stars of a ’90s sitcom. A NSFW Muppet detective spoof featuring McCarthy and other likable comedic actors like Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, and Joel McHale maybe could have been a breath of fresh air, something for parents to enjoy once the kids go to bed. Instead, Henson has given us the worst movie of the summer — and quite possibly the worst of the year thus far. 

Elizabeth Banks stars in The Happytime MurdersCourtesy of STXfilms

The Happytime Murders tries so desperately hard to push the envelope of indecency that it crosses into the realm of being astonishingly unfunny. I honestly can’t name another time I’ve sat in a theater and witnessed such deafening silence fall across an audience during a comedy than in my press screening for this. It isn’t the mere notion of watching puppets act naughty that is offensive or shocking; what’s shocking is how Henson’s film, written by Todd Berger with a story by Dee Austin Robertson, thinks it’s hilarious and edgy as it continues to make a fool of itself throughout the (thankfully brief) 91-minute runtime. The Happytime Murders is like that guy who gets too wasted too early at the party, taking things to an 11 when everyone else is comfortably tipsy at a seven. It’s as if a group of puppeteers who’ve been forced to stymie their horn-dog sense of humor for years are finally free to shout every crude joke at the top of their lungs all at once.

One especially vulgar scene encapsulates why this pairing of Muppets with blue comedy just doesn’t work. After one of Phil’s female clients seduces him, the two go at it in his office as a trio of cops and a poor Maya Rudolph watch through the glass. Then Phil ejaculates all over the ceiling and walls. A never-ending stream of silly string sprays and sprays and sprays, until it stops, and then sprays some more. But wait, the joke isn’t over — Phil’s semen then plops onto McHale’s jacket. It’s a pretty apt (if gross) metaphor for The Happytime Murders itself: a movie that throws every lewd joke at the wall to see what sticks, with no self-control, no comedic timing, no wit, and no rhyme or reason other than ‘Ha ha isn’t puppet prison rape funny?’ Just because a comedian drops an F-bomb or tells a sex joke doesn’t guarantee a laugh; it has to actually be funny and delivered with the right amount of restraint.

Joel McHale stars in The Happytime Murders
STX Entertainment

But at least there’s Melissa McCarthy right? Not right. Like the rest of the cast, McCarthy is wasted, once again used as a target for humor rooted in shaming women’s bodies and appearances. McCarthy has built a career out of her physical comedy, often in material that unfortunately uses her weight as a punchline. But for some reason, Hollywood is also obsessed with calling McCarthy’s femininity into question. I counted at least three jokes where McCarthy’s detective is mistaken as a man for laughs. Not only is it disgusting for a film to find humor in the mere existence of a butch woman, or to place such stereotypical expectations of femininity on a female character, but here’s the thing: McCarthy doesn’t look like a man! Where’s the joke here, guys?

In interviews, Henson said he initially passed on the puppet raunchfest over a decade ago when Berger approached him with the script. Whatever made him change his mind — and assume that wedging ribald humor into a story capitalizing off identity politics was a good idea — beats me. The world could certainly use a good laugh right now, not humorless dreck where puppets are stand-ins for lazy commentaries on racism.


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