Review: ‘Happytime Murders’ wastes concept and talent

This concept art from “The Happytime Murders” shows incredible promise that the film’s script couldn’t live up to.  (c) 2018. Photo credit: The Happytime Murders (The Jim Henson Company)/Tribune News Service

Although a bad movie can be a disappointment, it’s even more tragic when a promising movie is lackluster, as is the case with the Jim Henson Company’s latest film, “The Happytime Murders.”

“Happytime” portrays puppets living alongside humans, albeit they’re treated as second-class citizens. Just as the first puppet-majority TV show, “The Happytime Gang,” is about to be syndicated years after its original run, former cast members are mysteriously killed off. After losing his brother who starred in the show, disgruntled puppet P.I., Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), must cooperate with his former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to find the mastermind.

While the concept of beloved childhood characters in adult settings is anything but original, it’s still an excellent one with room for creativity, and most stories with this concept set themselves apart in execution. However, while “Happytime” is on the right track by being a puppet noir comedy, it falls apart in execution, primarily due to an awful script that removes any chance of the film having its own identity.

The plot is a predictable but poorly paced mess, part of which comes down to bland writing, but the pacing gives off the feeling that “Happytime” suffered from script editing. There’s hints of character development and mystery, but the film hastily concludes these plotlines. Characters suddenly know major information that nobody told them, and some of the film’s twists and turns go completely unexplained, meaning vital scenes were likely cut.

The story is at its best when displaying puppet life, which it doesn’t do enough. Not only is the allegory of puppets as minorities used in a cliche fashion, the story never explores it in-depth. “The Happytime Gang” is supposedly a major step in the puppets’ civil rights movement, but the show’s impact on the industry is never truly shown, even though that aspect could have made for excellent scriptwriting.

Though “Happytime” banks on its humor, it felt like any average R-rated comedy. No joke brought any laughter, and while some came close, they were overshadowed by excessive shock humor typical of adult comedies. That’s not to say shock humor can’t be entertaining, creative or even topical–e.g. “South Park” before Season 20–but its abundance and lack of variety drags “Happytime” down.

Most of the movie’s jokes are just characters having sailor mouths, and the constant swearing not only loses the impact of vulgarity, but it misses the point of putting swears into dialogue. When used properly, a swear can accentuate a well-written joke or make a dramatic moment more powerful. Unfortunately, “Happytime” is more content with putting money into a nonexistent swear jar than putting those funds towards better comedic writing.

What’s really funny about “adult humor” is that adult media is often more juvenile than children’s media. From “Gravity Falls” to “Hey Arnold,” franchises aimed at children can have engaging and deep stories for anyone. While not every R-rated story is like “Happytime,” less talented writers use the lack of censorship to excuse swears and immaturity without substance rather than an opportunity to challenge their audience on an emotional level.

That’s not to say that “Happytime” is without merit; almost every other part of the movie shows incredible talent, but the script is so horrible that it outweighs the good bits. The acting is acceptable, but the film shines most in its puppetry, which makes sense given the Jim Henson Company is behind the project. A post-credits montage showcases the stunning work that went into creating even the simplest scenes.

The movie is worth existing for its in-universe advertisements, which show better writing than the movie. From a documentary about “The Happytime Gang” to a public service announcement that substitutes drugs for maple syrup, almost all the ads were amusing. Admittedly, they paint characters as more plot-relevant than they are, and outside of the lead characters, everyone has about as much screen time in the movie as in the trailers.

Critics have compared “Happytime” to the award-winning musical “Avenue Q” based on its concept, but one of these things is not like the other. On top of excellent songwriting, comedy and replicating the aesthetic of “Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q” makes a poignant point about its source material, which “Happytime” falls flat in doing. If anything, it’s closer to a “Robot Chicken” sketch in which the Muppet Show cast is killed off.

In fact, said “Robot Chicken” sketch accurately sums up the film. All the excellent puppetry and good acting can only go so far when a scriptwriter chooses to use raunchy content without substance, and like a sketch comedy, the film’s ideas are better suited to short segments than a feature-length film. “The Happytime Murders” could have been so much more if only the creators had pulled the right strings.

“The Happytime Murders” is rated R for strong crude sexual content, language, and drug material. The movie runs for 91 minutes.

Sean Mullins – Technology Columnist

This is Sean’s third year on the ECHO, having contributed to the site during journalism class in his sophomore year and becoming a columnist and blogger in his junior year. Sean writes Electric Retrospective, a column dedicated to gaming editorials and reviews, as well as a blog also titled Electric Retrospective that posts news stories and reviews every Tuesday.

 


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