On the surface, there’s plenty of evidence that a movie like The Happytime Murders should work. The Tony Award-winning Avenue Q proved that foul-mouthed puppets can be popular, and boundary-pushing comedies like Girls Trip and Blockers draw plenty of people to laugh at things that are just plain wrong.
But The Happytime Murders has neither the charm nor the cleverness to pull off its intended goal. The conceit of the film is that puppets have evolved to the point that they live side-by-side with humans, although they still face much derision and discrimination. Most of them seem to live on the periphery of normal society, getting by however they can.
Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is a run-down puppet private investigator who’s still smarting from the ignominious end to his time with the police and his partnership with human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). When puppets from the TV show The Happytime Gang start being murdered all over town, Phillips and Edwards are thrust together once again, each trying to figure out who’s responsible.
Directed by Brian Henson (yes, son of Jim), the film tries to have lots of fun portraying Barretta as the cliché of a private eye, complete with a ditzy human secretary, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). And if the title wasn’t clue enough, they dispel any notion of the film being family friendly by filling it to the brim with profanity, sex, drugs, and grisly violence — well, as family friendly as grisly as puppets being obliterated can be.
A handful of individual moments are laugh-out-loud funny, including a murder-by-dog and pretty much anything involving Rudolph. But the vast majority of the film feels like they’re either trying too hard to get a laugh or overestimated how funny certain elements would be. The story is strictly by-the-numbers, so the comedy is all the film has going for it. When it fails, so does everything else.
Since earning her Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids in 2011, McCarthy has mostly failed to live up to that reputation. She’s had eight starring roles in films since then, and only a couple of them can even claim to be decent. Given the right role, she still has the potential to be transcendent, but instead she keeps settling for/being given dreck like this.
Combining puppets and obscenity has worked before and it could work again, but The Happytime Murders never approaches the level of storytelling or comedy necessary for it to be considered a success.