When news first arrived that Melissa McCarthy would be starring in an R-rated puppet comedy, people immediately began to speculate whether this could match the comedic heights of Avenue Q, the Tony-winning musical that brought some shameless raunch to the world of puppets. Sadly, The Happytime Murders is nowhere near as funny or clever as Avenue Q or even Meet The Feebles. Instead, this lazy spoof feels like an unoriginal rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that primarily mines laughs from the question: Isn’t it funny when puppets do sex and say bad words?
Plot-wise, Happytime Murders pretty openly borrows from the aforementioned Roger Rabbit, except it’s puppets who have been ostracized in society instead of toons. There is nothing wrong with a movie finding inspiration from others movies but there is a problem when the movie does absolutely nothing new with the concept. Whereas Roger Rabbit built an intricate, fully-formed world that served as a brilliant metaphor for segregation, Happytime Murders is too busy making the same joke about how carrots kind of looks like dicks over and over again to be concerned with any sort of world-building.
The reluctant relationship between Detective Connie Edwards (McCarthy), a human who doesn’t like puppets, and Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a puppet and disgraced former detective, shamelessly mirrors the uneasy relationship between Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), a private investigator who doesn’t like toons, and Roger Rabbit, a toon. Both Edwards and Valiant are forced to look past their prejudice and help Roger and Phil, respectively, when they are wrongly accused of murder. But while Valiant and Roger’s relationship slowly transforms from enemies to friends, Edwards and Phil just say they don’t like each other and then later say that they actually do. Nothing about the relationship feels authentic, forcing the success of the movie to rely solely on the jokes landing, which, unfortunately, they do not.
From start to finish, the movie is a masterclass in how not to be funny, as Happytime Murders constantly tops itself in terms of delivering unoriginal jokes that even 13-year-old boys would find juvenile. Most arguments in the film revolve around two characters yelling ‘Fuck you!’ back and forth until one of them finally relents. As a whole, the movie seems to believe that the best and really only way to write a joke is by being as crass as possible. This isn’t the worst strategy, as a perfectly-timed ‘fuck’ or well-crafted sex joke can be downright hilarious. However, the writing in Happytime Murders is far too lazy to come up with anything clever. Take, for example, this exchange between Phil and Sandra, a damsel in distress who asks Phil for his help.
Sandra: I have a big appetite.
Phil: How big?
Sandra: Big enough to take down the Titanic and by Titanic, I mean your cock.
Happytime Murder’s visual humor isn’t much better, as it exclusively works for people who think that the idea of a puppet jizzing silly string is inherently hilarious. This is a shame because there is clearly a ton of comedy gold to mine from the idea of a puppet noir film, as the two feel naturally juxtaposed in a way that should be explored for laughs. But instead, the movie is comfortably making the easiest and most obvious jokes possible and hoping that a puppet smoking and boozing will be enough to satisfy the audience.
And perhaps the idea of muppets doing adult shit will be enough to intrigue some viewers but those people would be better off checking out Meet The Feebles, which is available for free on Tubi.tv, a mostly-forgotten puppet movie that was directed by none other than Academy Award-winning Director Peter Jackson in the late ’80s. Similar to Happytime Murders, Feebles is an unapologetic filth fest that subverts the usual expectations of muppets by going as dirty as possible for pure shock factor. The major difference? While Feebles is by no means a classic film — in fact, it’s downright disgusting at times — it uses its over-the-top sensibilities to actually be funny.
It’s easy to see how with a little more dedication and care, Happytime Murders could have been an original, sharp comedy that managed to spoof both the gritty detective genre and the brightly colored, sing-song world of muppets. But instead, the movie takes the lazy route and, in the process, clearly established itself as the frontrunner for the worst comedy of 2018.
The Happytime Murders is playing in theaters nationwide.