Dueling Critics: The Happytime Murders

09:10 August 27, 2018
By: David Vicari, Fritz Esker

Fritz: The Happytime Murders director Brian Henson (Jim's son) has made some good muppet movies, including The Muppet Christmas Carol. The screenwriter (and NOLA native), Todd Berger, wrote and directed the excellent It's a Disaster and The Scenesters (both are available to stream if you have Amazon Prime - check them out). So the creative pedigree is there for a good movie, and the story about the former cast members of a popular children's show being murdered has potential. But for me, The Happytime Murders ends up being one of those films that looks great on paper, but does not come together on screen. What did you think?

Dueling Critics: <em>The Happytime Murders</em>

David: The movie is gross and juvenile in its humor, but, I must admit, it got some laughs out of the 8th grader I am at heart. Happytime Murders is set in a world where humans and puppets co-exist, and puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced ex-cop turned private eye, has to team up with his former police partner, human Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to solve the murders. The plot is film noir 101, so it's easy to spot the villains from the moment they appear on screen. It is all very clunky, and the theme of prejudice is undernourished. Clearly, this isn't anywhere as good as Disney's brilliant Zootopia, but it is far superior to Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles, which is a film I truly hate. Yes, for laughs Happytime Murders has puppets involved in sexual acts, drugs and killings, but I do think smart moments appear occasionally, like when Phillips whispers to Edwards from across the room, but she can't read his lips because puppets don't have lips. That's funny.

Dueling Critics: <em>The Happytime Murders</em>

Fritz: There are some moments of cleverness, like the failed lip-reading scene you mention and the "murder weapon" that's used in the second killing. The prejudice theme gets largely abandoned. The plotting is also weak and falls victim to what Roger Ebert called the law of economy of characters (i.e., if a character seems like he/she could be cut from the film completely without losing anything, that character is the killer). Both Zootopia and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are mysteries set in fantastical universes that are plotted as well as any Raymond Chandler novel. But in The Happytime Murders, it's clunky and too straightforward. The cops meet a member of the cast, then that member of the cast dies shortly thereafter. The movie would have benefitted from letting us get to know the cast members a little better and not killing them off almost as soon as the audience meets them.

I mentioned screenwriter Todd Berger's The Scenesters earlier - that was a comic mystery that also had a legitimately good plot. I wonder if studio execs and rewrites dumbed down The Happytime Murders?

As for the gross-out humor, there are a few moments when there's some imagination to it (the, um, "romantic" pairing between the octopus and the cow), but a lot of it ends up feeling like the movie thinks puppets doing gross things is good enough on its own.

Dueling Critics: <em>The Happytime Murders</em>

David: You are right on all accounts, and, yes, I also wondered if it was dumbed down in rewrites. Still, I thought it had enough big laughs that I give it a marginal recommendation.

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