Foul-Mouthed Puppets Have Crazy Sex in ‘The Happytime Murders’

The Happytime Murders” fits any number of film genres. It’s a puppet movie (as in muppet) but you wouldn’t want to take your children to it. It’s a murder mystery in the tradition of classic film noirs set in L.A., except the victims are blue and stuffed with cotton. It’s even a message movie about prejudice and minorities. (OK. That’s a bit of a stretch since this minority is made of puppets that are frankly victims of extreme … what? Anti-puppetism?)

Most importantly, it’s a comedy and most times a very funny one, especially when it’s not overly relying on the shock value of Muppet-looking puppets having sex and using the F-word for humor. It’s a violent movie, if blowing up stuffed puppets qualifies as violence. Phil Phillips (Bill Barreta is both the voice and the puppeteer) is a former cop now a down-on-his-luck private detective.  When the cast of “Happytime Gang,” a once popular children’s TV show, begins to end up dead, Phil has to team up with Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to bring the killers to justice. It’s a troubled case from the beginning, full of dark connections and tragic memories but in a funny way.

Phil’s own brother, a popular cast member known as Officer Shenanigans, is torn apart by ill-mannered pups at his own hot tub. Phil’s former love Jenny (Elizabeth Banks), the only human “Happytime Gang” cast member, is blown up in her car. Even Detective Edwards is questionable as a crime-solving partner. It was her testimony years ago that was the reason Phil, the first and last puppet cop, was removed from the force.

The movie has a little in common with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Both toons and puppets are the object of discrimination, which gets in the way as the body count grows. But “The Happytime Murders” is not for kids. Imagine if Jessica Rabbit wasn’t just playing Patty Cake when she was surreptitiously photographed. Imagine a scene more graphic but unique to cartoons and there you’d have “The Happytime Murders.”

After a few decades of directing and acting in more family oriented Muppet movies like “Muppet Treasure Island.” Brian Henson has taken all he learned from that experience and turned it on its head. Under the label of Henson Alternative, Henson set out to fashion a puppet entertainment that is for adults only. Seeing puppets so obviously Muppet-like participating the kind of activities seen in “Happytime Murders” can be possibly disturbing for those raised on “Sesame Street.” But humor is the reaction Henson most seeks and generally, he succeeds.

McCarthy is hilarious as the human cop with the puppet liver. For all of her physical comedy where a sugar high outdoes cocaine, she is at her funniest when trading barbs with Phil, a quick repartee done with the sharp timing of Abbot and Costello. She in turn gets great comedic support from Bubbles (Maya Rudolph), Phil’s adoring secretary who is not opposed to interspecies (or whatever) romance. Bubbles is the perfect straight woman, as archetypal as any Girl Friday from any Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade old-time radio mystery.

How this movie succeeds depends a lot on the audience and its tolerance for adult humor and situations from puppets that resemble beloved childhood characters. But puppet Phil and Officer Edwards turn “The Happytime Murders” into a buddy movie with a twist. Together they prove that Hollywood is a tough business, even if you’re blue, stuffed with foam and addicted to sugar.

The Happytime Murders” opens Aug. 23 in theaters nationwide.