I love B-movie genre films. I realize not a whole lot of people do, but I love the irreverent, surprising and entertaining ways they will go about shaking up certain genres. They aren’t fine art, but they are an often disregarded section of film, and I think that’s a tragedy. Letting yourself be entertained by the zombified antics of Dead Alive or the sci-fi adventures of Flash Gordon is one of the most rewarding and fun experiences you can have in a theater. I am willing to take a chance on a movie like a “puppet noir” film because that’s right up the same alley as those other films. They are all fun and over-the-top genre pieces. A raunchy puppet/human noir film would fit perfectly in that B-movie genre niche. I went in with such optimism. Well, with The Happytime Murders, we get the comedy, but not the story, writing, or directing, to carry us through the whole 90 minutes.
The film follows Private Investigator Phil Philips, a hardened, cigarette smoking ex-detective and puppet. As he gets a new assignment it is revealed to be a much larger conspiracy than what he initially thought, with a series of murders connected by a 90s sitcom starring mostly puppets. He has to team up with his old human partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to solve the case. Along the way they meet all manner of unsavory sorts to figure out the truth behind the murders.
Besides that previous paragraph, not a whole lot else happens. There’s a twist telegraphed ten minutes before you’re supposed to know the twist. The duo travels around a bit. And that’s about it. A movie like this needs a good story along with the funny premise. Once the premise is understood, the audience needs a little more substance to get invested. This story had barely any of that, just a by the books detective story. The dialogue gets on the nose often and some scenes are basically repeated a few times, looping the story back instead of moving forward. Also, the puppets as a marginalized minority in this world was necessary for the story, but brought attention to the kind of confusing human-puppet relations, both politically and sexually. There are outrageous moments, but the base story is nothing to die over.
The comedy is one of the major pillars the movie substitutes for a decent story. The first few shots of Phil driving a car, smoking, investigating, are hilarious. Then Phil goes to the porn shop, the Puppet Pleasureland, and the novelty of raunchy puppets ends there. There are hysterical moments throughout when the filmmakers decide to just go for it, which I can appreciate. From puppet porn to incest babies, it’s edgy and it works. Between the moments of demoralized puppets, there isn’t much. Every scene with mostly humans is boring and unfunny. The puppets could do all these crazy things and still be rated R, because they’re puppets, but the human characters can’t be nearly as crazy because that would probably entail an X rating. So, they then pale in comparison to the funny, distinct side puppet characters along the journey.
The puppets on a technical level are the other pillar. Traditionally, puppet performers had to hide their arms behind a wall or something like that to preserve the illusion of a live puppet. Now with green screen the performers can essentially be anywhere, and it’s amazing. The director has some profound freedom, even if it maybe isn’t put to the best use. Puppets can freely kick humans in the balls, do drugs, have sex, or anything else you could possibly think to put in a rated R comedy. Also, the sets are so detailed and clever, with jokes hidden throughout the background, making for some good laughs if you end up bored. They just will of course be incredibly dirty, the variety of such is astounding. If you sit down and think of what you might see in this film, you will be surprised at how grossed out and wrong you were before, and that’s an entertainment factor that at least kept me in my seat.
The acting is also surprisingly good. The voice actors all do a wonderful job and make the side characters really funny and strange. Bill Barretta, who voices Phil, has a great hardened detective voice and delivery. McCarthy puts in her fair share as well. She shows a little more range than her usual, but not enough to be show stopping. I think she has it in her for a great performance (*cough cough* Can You Ever Forgive Me? anyone?) but that’s for another article. The puppets are well operative. The weak links are definitely Joel McHale and Leslie David Baker, which I can believe isn’t their fault. There was little blocking or style when constructing the scenes with these guys. They got basic coverage and then were done with it.
This movie is fine. There are some great gags with the puppets. But besides that, not a whole lot of reason to see it. It’s a brisk 90 minutes so if you have to see it in theaters, it’ll pass quickly once you start regretting your decision.