The Happytime Murders (2018)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

A Christmas Carol Five Ways

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For this holiday, I decided to watch five different versions of A Christmas Carol. Despite the anti-semitic subtext (the main character is a stingy money lender with a big nose, and the name Ebenezer, who finds the meaning of Christmas), it’s a story that 173 years later still feels relevant: a ruthless, old rich man who hates Christmas being scared into human decency.

I’m going to give an overview here in chronological order along with my choice for favorite ghost.

Scrooge (1951)

This is the version considered to be the best classic. It’s easy to write it off as just a straightforward telling of the book, but there’s a lot of stylistic fun. The ghosts have some cool fadings in and out, the lighting and atmosphere are spooky, and this film seems to have set the rules for how A Christmas Carol movies should look and feel. Not to mention the iconic way they present Tiny Tim’s famous line.

Alastair Sim is a really great Scrooge. He plays both sides of the character’s nature well: the detestable penny pincher and the pitiful old man. Not to mention that he makes a bunch of fantastic faces. His ending transformation is absolutely manic and almost more terrifying than how he starts out.

Favorite Ghost: I think the Ghost of Christmas Past here is actually really cool. In a lot of ways, I think this is the hardest ghost to get right, which is a shame because it’s the one that usually gets the most screen time.  I like this guy’s Greek robes. He’s soft spoken yet authoritative, which I guess makes sense, since the past speaks for itself.

Scrooge (1970)

I was really surprised with how much I really enjoyed this one. It might be my second favorite and I’m considering adding it to the household tradition watch list. It’s very solidly British, with very solidly British humor. It’s a musical, and one of the first songs you hear is “I Hate People.” If you’re not sold after that number, I don’t know what to tell you. But if you make it through enjoying nothing else, it gets really ’70s weird near the end, with a trippy scene where Scrooge actually goes to Hell.

Albert Finney is by far the grubbiest Scrooge. There’s a few close-ups of his very grimy hands with dirt under the finger nails. Scrooge’s house reflects that and  is the most convincing Scrooge house. It’s this elaborate mansion, but Scrooge is so stingy that he only uses a small, filthy section of it. The rest is cobwebs and decay.

Favorite Ghost: Jacob Marley is my favorite ghost in this one. He’s played by Alec Guinness (hey, he plays a ghost at least twice in his career), who pantomimes ghostly floating by bobbing up and down. Second place to the Ghost of Christmas Past for having a really great hat!

Scrooged (1988)

This take on A Christmas Carol is very different. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s about Bill Murray who is a television executive. He’s ruthless and bizarre. As he’s producing a live TV version of A Christmas Carol, he gets visited by the three ghosts (I guess four if you count Marley) who are just as updated and bizarre. It’s the very cynical Network-esque take on the story.

Bill Murray is great as a rich asshole. He’s exactly the kind of rich asshole a modern audience knows about. The boss who will fire someone for bringing up reasonable concerns and will ignore when a single mom needs to take her child to the doctor.  As a Scrooge type character he’s half as old but twice as mean, and despite the surreal world that surrounds him, he’s quite believable, which in a lot of ways makes him seem like he’s past redemption. Luckily the ghosts are ruthless and sadistic.

Favorite Ghost: It’s really hard to say no to Carol Kane as bubbly fairy punching Bill Murray in the face, but I actually really like the take on Christmas Yet to Come here. Its entrance, just appearing, looming on the television monitors, is just so creepy and amazing.

A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

This version is my personal favorite and has been since childhood, and despite the presence of The Muppets, it’s actually really close to the book. There are many, many lines lifted straight from the page. I’m kind of a big Jim Henson/muppets fan in general (which you may remember from my article about The Dark Crystal), but I think what really gets me about this movie are those Paul Williams melodies. I don’t really think it’s Christmas without them (especially since my other favorite Christmas movies is Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, another Henson production with more of Williams’s music). This movie came out after Jim Henson died and was directed by his son, but all the other muppet players are there: Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Steve Whitmire (who now voices Kermit after Henson’s death).

Gonzo is Charles Dickens here and narrates the whole thing with the help of Rizzo the Rat. Following that pair’s misadventures through the story keeps the muppet whimsicality throughout the whole movie. Not to mention the appearances by other notable muppet characters like the Swedish Chef or Sam the Eagle. Michael Caine as Scrooge delivers the “they better do it and decrease the surplus population” line with so much darkness and grit, but at the same time has such good chemistry with his furry castmates. As I’ve said already that this is my favorite version of the story, he’s also who I think of as Scrooge.   Also at the end, he busts out some of the most awkward moves I think I’ve seen a grown man do, and in his night gown to boot!

Favorite Ghost: I’m going to have to go with Marley here. Except in this version they created a second Marley, Robert Marley. These two Marleys are played by Statler and Waldorf, who are known for being the hecklers. They get a pretty good musical number complete with singing money chests.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Out of all the versions I watched, this was the most mediocre and also the most frightening. It’s a Robert Zemeckis animated feature done in a very similar style to Polar Express, which means uncanny semi-realistic people, but beautiful backgrounds. There are so many adaptations of this work, though, that I don’t think I really understand why this one was even necessary, since it’s very close to the book and other than some impressive animation it’s pretty unremarkable. Nor do I understand why a family movie has a couple unnecessary jump scares. Despite the jump scares and creepy animated people, it just seems to drag on.  There’s so many scenes of Scrooge getting dragged along and knocked about all of them screaming, “We released this in 3D!”. It gets so old so quickly. There’s also some really bizarre and troubling imagery worked throughout. Jacob Marley’s jaw gets detached. The Ghost of Christmas Past goes through a freaky face morphing thing. A woman gets snatched away by a straight jacket. It’s just very dark. I wasn’t especially impressed with Jim Carrey as Scrooge, either. Albeit, this was animated, so I’m going off the voice acting for the most part, despite the film using motion capture heavily in it’s animation.

Favorite Ghost: I didn’t think they were interesting at all, but I guess I’ll go with Marley again, but only because he’s a grotesque, decaying corpse.

Interestingly, 3 of the 5 titles are some variation on Scrooge. All of them are agreed on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like, 4 out of 5 have similar ideas of the Ghost of Christmas Present, but none of them can agree on what the Ghost of Christmas Past looks like.

-Alli Hobbs

Watching The Dark Crystal (1982) with Toby Froud

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I’ve been a huge Jim Henson fan basically my entire life. I grew up with The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and all of the Muppet movies. Given all of that, The Dark Crystal was a movie I watched a lot as a kid, but at that time, I don’t think any of the important detail stuck. It wasn’t until watching it last year as an adult I finally really appreciated it. The Dark Crystal functions in such a dense, beautiful world. It’s got new cultures, strange creatures, and symbols on top of symbols. I recently got the chance to see it with a Q&A by Toby Froud that expanded upon the time and love it took to create this masterpiece.

The Dark Crystal is an epic. It was Jim Henson’s passion project. He wanted to be known as a filmmaker and not just The Muppet Guy. It took Henson five years to make along with a team of highly dedicated creatives with a wide range of talents (jewelry making, costume designers, puppeteers, writers). Among them were Brain Froud who was the designer for The Dark Crystal and Wendy Midener who sculpted and created the Gelflings. They met working on the film. Toby Froud is their son and, following in the footsteps of his parents, a puppet fabricator for Laika. (He also was the baby in  Labyrinth.) Although The Dark Crystal was before he was born, he grew up with goblins and Gelflings all around, and has a unique perspective. It obviously was extremely influential for him.

Toby showed a slideshow of original concept art, screen tests, behind the scenes messing around, and supplied anecdotes to go along with each one. The Dark Crystal is one of the only movies in the world that is all puppetry. So many of the pictures showed just how much work and ingenuity these creatures took: men being stuck into Garthim suits, faces being sculpted, strange contraptions to figure out exactly how things would realistically move. Everything was crafted from the ground up. There was no story even to begin with. Jim Henson just started with images of creatures and ideas about the world; everything else just came as they started making things. People dedicated their time. Some people even risked their lives walking on stilts in Landstrider costumes on top of raised sets.

Given the dense nature of the world a lot of material has been written to expand it. There are the Creation Myths graphic novels and an upcoming full length novelization of events that occur after the original story. There have been rumors of a sequel coming for years, some sounding more serious than others. Toby Froud even said not to count the possibility out. That got me wishful thinking. A Laika-made Dark Crystal sequel is something that I would line up to see.

-Alli Hobbs