Despite what the hype would have you believe, “The Happytime Murders” is not the most inappropriate puppet movie ever made (Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles” still retains that honor). There is a lot of fluff wrapped around its hard-boiled innards, but somewhere in there is also a gleefully raunchy subversion of film noir and an attempted metaphor for race relations that is unfortunately hamstrung by spare writing.
Written by Todd Berger and directed by Brian Henson (son of the late “Muppets” creator Jim Henson), it plays like “L.A. Confidential” meets “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” down on “Avenue Q,” but without the inspiration. It’s an above-average, one-viewing wonder that at least manages to be more than a one-joke movie.
The film centers on the unlikely anti-hero Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta), a disgraced cop (and the LAPD’s first and last puppet detective) who is now working as a private detective in a world where puppets are a part of society, and generally treated as second-class citizens by humans.
His investigation of a kinky blackmail case takes an ominous turn via a shotgun slaughter in a puppet porn shop (you read that correctly). When Phil’s TV-star brother is killed shortly after, it becomes clear that someone is targeting the former cast members of the popular sitcom “The Happytime Gang”.
Phil is forced to team-up with his embittered ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), a woman with a super-cop exterior that masks one of the weirder addictions to be found in a crime flick. Cue the double-crosses, frame-ups, interrogations, dark secrets, weird puppet sex, and other vital tropes of the genre (okay, maybe not so much that last one).
“The Happytime Murders” is a brisk 91 minutes, but doesn’t quite move fast of enough to keep us from realizing how thin the plot is (most viewers will have it mapped out in their heads about 15 minutes in). Berger and Henson tick off most of the boxes on the genre’s checklist, but it’s so by-the-numbers that it doesn’t work as a whodunnit.
In all fairness, its main goal is comedy, and whether or not it succeeds in the attempt is a matter of personal taste. McCarthy relies heavily on her usual shtick; fortunately, she’s bailed out self-parody by her surprisingly effective chemistry with her felt-skinned co-star. Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale, and Leslie David Baker each have what basically amount to extended cameos. In the end, it’s Barretta and Maya Rudolph (as Phil’s ‘Girl Friday’ Bubbles) who steal the spotlight.
As a spoof of crime dramas and a subversion of our childhood memories of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” it’s hit and miss, depending on how one feels about silly string ejaculate and a “Basic Instinct” reference that can never be unseen. No judgments here.