Jim Henson's son Brian Henson attempts to expand his father's wildly popular puppet empire into the adult arena with The Happytime Murders, a sort of alt version of the Muppet world mashed up with 1988's groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but without any of the smart humor, strong characters or solid writing.
In a bizarre version of modern-day Los Angeles, puppets live alongside humans but are treated like second-class citizens. Years prior, a popular puppet-led sitcom wowed TV viewers, but now its principal cast members are being killed off one by one, forcing former cop-turned-hard-boiled private investigator Phil Phillips (a puppet) back into service alongside his ex-partner Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) who is the catalyst for legislation preventing puppets from joining the force.
A past wherein the puppets' performative talents were appreciated is hinted at, but most of the non-human characters introduced are pornographers, addicts, criminals and/or foul-mouthed sex fiends—cue crude jokes and absurd violence. It seems like Henson and company overshot their desire to distance themselves from a family-friendly image by a mile.
After the initial novelty of adult-themed puppets wears off, The Happytime Murders mostly seems like a quick cash-in based on 20- and 30-somethings' Muppet nostalgia. Dialogue feels improvisational at best or, at worst, like actors were working with a hastily slapped-together script. Worse yet, the movie is almost never funny despite appearances from comedic champions like Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale, and the mystery is utterly lacking in intrigue, twists and turns—you'll probably figure it out quickly. And even if you don't, it's unlikely you'll care.
Which is sad, because there's always been a certain cheese factor to Henson films that is forgivable (and even enjoyable) when presented in the right context. Maybe magic skips a generation or something, but The Happytime Murders does not live up to its hype or its pedigree. Maybe skip it, unless you have plans to get real stoned first.
+A few mild laughs
-Boring and not well-crafted
The Happytime Murders
Directed by Henson
With McCarthy, Rudolph, McHale and a whole mess of puppets
Regal, Violet Crown, R, 91 min.