Fourteen years ago, Brian Henson turned down the script for “The Happytime Murders,” feeling that it was too dirty for the cute puppets created by his parents. A decade later, he changed his mind, and not only changed his mind but decided to be as dirty as possible and to have the puppets perform almost every sexual act possible.
“We did have a bar scene with a bartender puppet that had a singing penis, which was a very funny joke that we decided not to do. So that one won’t make it in the movie,” he told the IGN network about a moment when he demonstrated sensitivity. Henson’s anecdote is indicative of the constantly rising level of sex and violence in movies and on television. It also sheds light on what becomes apparent while watching the film: If there was a funny joke in the script, it was left on the cutting room floor.
Henson is today master of the biggest empire of puppeteers in the last hundred years. He doesn’t have much competition, but it’s still impressive. His parents, Jim and Jane, formed the Jim Henson Company in 1958, and from the beginning it included some of the characters that are still identified with it, such as Kermit the Frog. Afterward, the empire expanded on television and in the cinema, with forays into a slightly more adult world in the form of “The Muppet Show” and “The Storyteller.” Henson’s children were there from day one. Brian Henson started out as a boy on “Sesame Street” in the 1970s, and later entered the family business behind the camera. He directed two successful films in the 1990s (“The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island”), but since his parents’ death he seems to be focusing on production and on managing the Jim Henson Company.
Brian Henson didn’t explain what made him change his mind about directing “The Happytime Murders,” but it might have something to do with the fact that he and his siblings sold the rights to the famous Muppets, such as Miss Piggy and Kermit, to Disney, and that “Sesame Street” is also no longer in their hands. That left the family company with hundreds of characters but without much concern for the decent, educational image cultivated by Jim Henson. That spirit morphed into a largely symbolic lawsuit filed by Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” against the new movie, over its tagline “All Sesame, no Street.” Henson insisted that this actually created a distinction between “Sesame Street” and “The Happytime Murders.” The court ruled in his favor.
The plot is an unsophisticated parody of film noir, set in a Los Angeles in which the puppets live in the human world as second-class citizens. The protagonist is the puppet Phil Phillips (voice of Bill Barretta), an embittered, alcoholic private detective who has learned from life not to aim high. In the past he was a hero who broke the felt ceiling for his species. He made history, becoming the first puppet in an LAPD uniform – and then he made history a second time, when he was booted off the force in disgrace amid a ban on hiring puppets for the police. Since then he’s been hunched over a glass of whiskey in his office in a seedy section of Chinatown. With him is his flesh-and-blood secretary (Maya Rudolph, “Saturday Night Live”).
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The routine comes to an end with the appearance of a sexy puppet with a generous cleavage and a reputation for being an uncontrolled nymphomaniac. She hires him to investigate a mystery, which leads him to a store that rents porn movies, where he witnesses a murder. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of a complex case of murders whose victims are connected to an old television series that stars a large number of puppets and one woman (played by Elizabeth Banks). To prevent more murders, Phil has to hook up with his former police partner, Detective Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).
The plot outline might create the mistaken impression that the film has logical continuity, or that the creators aspire to some sort of coherent narrative. But it’s important to make clear that it doesn’t, and they don’t. Henson and scriptwriter Todd Berger grasped the central comic effect available to them: the collective memory of “Sesame Street,” five decades old, and of the Muppets as well. All you have to do to arouse healthy laughter is to thrust those nostalgic childhood recollections into an extreme situation of sex, drugs and murder. That’s just dandy for a skit on “Saturday Night Live” or some other program. The attempt to stretch a five-minute gag across an hour and a half is an endurance test for creators and viewers alike.
Henson and the marketing people weren’t lying when they declared that the film wouldn’t be bound by constrictions of censorship or good taste. The plot ultimately doesn’t even try for logic – or for nonsense, for that matter – but shatters into fragments. The story progresses like a collection of threads that aim to connect, however loosely, a few scenes that amuse the creators. The main thing is to get to the punchline, which is always the same: cute puppets doing things that puppets don’t do. It might be a junkie puppet that will do anything, but anything, to sniff sugar, or perhaps the set of a porn film in which an octopus-puppet milks a cow-puppet in a highly graphic way.
Shock, too, generates a comic effect, but it can’t stand on its own, certainly not after Peter Jackson paved the way for puppets for adults in “Meet the Feebles.” Even the shards of plot that occasionally surface in the movie feel derived from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which 30 years ago integrated humans and animated creatures in an elegant blend of noir with a comedy for adults. In “The Happytime Murders” the unfulfilled – or over-fulfilled – potential of the puppets goes hand in hand with the outrageous waste of human talent. Melissa McCarthy, one of today’s most talented comedians, is shunted to a minor role at best; Rudolph gets only one scene to display her skills and leaves you wondering why there isn’t more of her in the movie; and even Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale (“Community”) are no more than flesh-and-blood springboards for more jokes about a puppet with a cock.
Marionettes have accompanied humanity since the dawn of history. That’s no exaggeration – the first historian, Herodotus, wrote with interest about the puppets he saw in Egypt in the festival of Dionysus, and they, too, he said, were a substitute for the phallus in the Greek festival. In the 20th century, which brought us the big screen and the small screen, Jim and Jane Henson breathed life and soul into puppets and made them a presence in living rooms around the world. After their death, their son received puppets on a silver platter in an era of dulled sensitivity that allowed him to make a wild film for adults in a way that Robert Zemeckis couldn’t do in “Roger Rabbit.” Instead, Brian Henson found one joke that he wants to tell over and over. The result: one of the worst films of the summer. On the other hand, stoners might think otherwise.