Brian Henson (son of Jim) is currently being steamrolled by pro critics in his jump from directing children’s puppetry films like Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island to his first feature intended for adult audiences. Most of the negativity for Henson’s The Happytime Murders (as indicated by its 27 score on Metacritic & its 21% on the dreaded Tomatometer) seems to be framed around the jaded, seen-it-all attitude that his film’s central gimmick of raunchy Muppets humor is far from a brand-new novelty, with Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles serving as the most often-cited comparison point. That critique feels a little empty to me, as Feebles is far from the only raunchy Muppets-But-For-Adults media setting a precedent for Henson’s film. Wonder Showzen, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and TV Funhouse have all mined the Dirty Muppets gimmick for “mature” humor post-Feebles. Better yet, Meet the Feebles itself was also preceded by over a decade by the porno-comedy Let My Puppets Come. Henson’s latest is not a Feebles knockoff so much as it’s part of an ever-expanding genre of adult puppetry, a subclass of comedy distinct enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In fact, Henson himself has participated in this genre before as executive producer of the (underseen, underrated) political punditry spoof show No, You Shut Up!, which features puppets & performers recycled & repurposed in his latest critical debacle; the unexpected joy of seeing those puppets again was admittedly a huge part of why I’m soft on The Happytime Murders overall. No, it’s not a debt to Meet the Feebles that tempers the successes of Henson’s first feature intended for adults. It’s the debt that it owes to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that really weighs the film down (and also tarnishes Roger Rabbit’s memory in retrospect).
In Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy/special effects showcase Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, live-action humans & 2D cartoons interact in an alternate-history Old Hollywood past were the toons are seen as second-class citizens. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders unwisely picks up that same dynamic in its Muppet & human-cohabitated LA, underlining the racial allegory of the Roger Rabbit conceit for empty, uncomfortable political satire. Melissa McCarthy is tasked to hold down the Bob Hoskins role as the too-old-for-this-shit cop with open, callous bigotry for the puppets she must interact with while working her beat. As demonstrated by Max Landis’s recent critical disaster Bright, this Roger Rabbit blueprint for racial allegory divorced from actual racial identity has not aged especially well since Zemeckis’s film was released three decades ago (at least not in the hands of white artists interpreting POC experiences). While McCarthy is reluctantly paired with a puppet partner to investigate a string of puppet murders and learns that not all puppets are so bad along the way, the audience has no choice but to squirm through each political implication of that overriding allegory in a way that detracts from the film’s central mission: comedy. Sometimes these political missteps are uncomfortable in a presumably unintentional way, like when a rabbit puppet is “humorously” indicated to have dozens of illegitimate children (because rabbits breed a lot; it’s in everyone’s best interest to read further into it). Sometimes it’s deliberately uncomfortable in an #edgy way, like when a homeless puppet performs a minstrel tap-dance for humans’ spare change on an L.A. street corner or another has their blue felt bleached to appear more like their fleshy oppressors. In either instance, the conceit is a clumsy misfire that says way more about the failed legacy of Roger Rabbit than it does about Meet the Feebles.
There are a couple Roger Rabbit-isms that The Happytime Murders does pick up to great success, however; its jokes are often funny & its noir pastiche plot makes for a genuinely engaging story. If nothing else, my first-act guess about the puppet-murderer’s identity was only half-correct, so I have some unexpected respect for the film’s ability to stage an engaging mystery. That’s not typically what I look for in a comedy, though. I’m looking to laugh, which is not at all a problem with the talent on hand: McCarthy, who is always a hoot; Elizabeth Banks bringing back some of that scenery-chewing Power Rangers energy; The Office’s Leslie David Baker, playing the exasperated police chief role he was born for; Maya Rudolph doing her best impression of Annie Potts’s 1940s secretary schtick from the original-flavor Ghostbusters. Then there’s the puppetry itself, which applies the level of artistry you’d expect from the Henson family name to novelty sex imagery like cow udders being rhythmically milked, Dalmatian dominatrices working the business end of whips, and a puppet ejaculating entire cans’ worth of silly string. The worst I can say about The Happytime Murders’s raunchy puppet humor is that a few of its jokes are openly “borrowed” from outside sources (particularly the line “Does this smell like chloroform to you?” and a bit about sewn-shut assholes lifted wholesale from a Wu-Tang skit), but that’s nothing extraordinary given the film’s overall commitment to schtick. Humor is highly subjective so there’s no accounting for what people might find funny or too old-hat in the picture, but if you have a general appreciation for the adult puppet genre (or think a ZAZ-style spoof of the noir template might be worth a chuckle) the movie delivers the dumb-comedy goods.
The Happytime Murders is a three-star comedy with a half-star critical reputation, which is not at all uncommon with this shamelessly lowbrow end of raunch & schtick. The central allegory in its human-puppet racial relations is a clumsy embarrassment, but its general sense of raunchy Muppet humor is good for a goof, especially if Meet the Feebles isn’t your only comparison point for the adult puppetry genre, as they both benefit from a lager perspective than a 1:1 comparison. This is especially true for anyone who felt betrayed by the untimely demise of No, You Shut Up! (which was tragically canceled months before our last presidential election cycle, to my personal horror). As much as I enjoyed the film more than most audiences seemed to, it never made me as happy with a sex joke as it did with an incorporation of a discarded puppet or vocal performance from that show.