It is fitting that the trailer for “The Happytime Murders” played at the screening of “Deadpool 2.” Operating under the tagline “All street, no sesame,” the trailer sold itself as a gritty repackaging of “The Muppets” franchise, complete with the rare R-rating that “Deadpool” brought to the superhero genre. The story follows private investigator and puppet, Phil Philips (puppeteered by Bill Barretta), who must pair up with human detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to investigate a series of crimes against puppets. The trailer pitched: “Violence, F-bombs, sex. You’ve seen it all. But puppets?” That’s funny. For a movie that is betting everything on its shock value, the only thing that is shocking is how predictable and uninspired it really is. That, and the fatal flaw of breaking the Golden Rule of puppet movies.
But before I get to that, I do want to mention that I at least liked the puppeteering work. My most enjoyable moment watching the film occurred when the credits rolled, and not just because the film had ended. During the credits, the audience gets a peek of the behind-the-scenes work of puppeteers wearing green screen-lined track suits and working together to bring a puppet to life. Puppet feet are famously hard to rig, which is why we usually see puppets behind a desk or platform where the puppeteer hides from view. This is not the case in “The Happytime Murders,” where Phil is seen in full view sauntering down the streets of L.A. and climbing in and out of his sedan. Other examples of the puppeteering work include puppets expressively smoking cigarettes and turning into pieces of stuffing post-shotgun blast.
But truthfully, the practical effects are not enough to justify seeing this film. The jokes fail to land, the dialogue is boring and Melissa McCarthy’s talent is utterly wasted. And then there’s the Golden Rule of puppet movies: Tthe best puppet movies are those where the characters are not aware that they are puppets. When observed, it reveals how a world of puppets hangs by only an existential thread. Movies like “Team America: World Police” executed their satire of American foreign policy through marionette puppetry, while “Anomalisa” used stop-motion puppetry to tell a story about a man who feels trapped inside his own body. Neither movie has self-aware puppets, which lets the audience delve deeper into their stories.
But in the case of “The Happytime Murders,” self-aware puppets further ruin a shipwreck of a film. How exactly? Two words: pPuppet rRacism. Yes, the filmmakers thought the best way to explore the world of self-aware puppets is to steer straight for heavy-handed and cringeworthy territory. They posit a world where humans are prejudiced against puppets for a variety of contrivances, skin color among them. It was uncomfortable. I felt bad for the human actors who had to deliver their puppet epithets from a script that no way resembles actual racism or human speech. Maybe the movie was trying so hard to make puppets act like humans, they forgot that humans should as well.