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The Happytime Murders may feature puppets and be directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian, the director of The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, but do not go into it expecting a feel-good Muppets movie.  Happytime Murders goes far out of its way to separate itself from Kermit and the gang, earning itself an R rating for language and crude sexual content.  It accomplishes its goal, but at the expense of the better and more interesting story it felt like it was setting up in its first act.

The movie opens by introducing us to Phil Phillips, who was the first puppet to join the human police force, but now works as a private eye after being kicked off the force following an unfortunate incident.  A puppet femme fatale shows up at his office and hires him to investigate her blackmailer.  While on the case, Phillips stumbles into a murder scene involving one former star of a puppet television show called The Happytime Show.  Soon, it becomes clear that all of the former stars of the show are being knocked off, including Phil’s own brother, and the case gets personal.

The case reunites Phillips with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy.  While they were once simpatico partners, the pair had a falling out and are not too happy about having to work together again.  Things get especially tricky when the evidence seems to point more and more towards Phil himself and things become equally about proving his innocence as they do with finding the real killer.

With its film noir-inspired atmosphere and its setting in a world populated by both humans and puppets, The Happytime Murders feels in its opening few minutes like a direct descendant of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  But whereas Roger Rabbit played with the blending of animated characters in the human world in witty and creative ways, Happytime Murders falls into a well of filthy humor and gross-out gags, never quite finding a way to claw itself back out.  This results in a one joke movie—puppet depravity!—that suffers from the law of diminishing returns and gets very tiresome very quickly.

The movie is better when it is being more self-referential or even directly spoofing cop movie conventions, such as when an officer walks in holding a harmless looking puppy and explains that he “found the murder weapon.”  Even the sight gag of a puppet’s head exploding into a cloud of fluff when they are shot with a shotgun is funny in a shocking kind of way, but these genuinely humorous moments are overshadowed by puppets performing over-the-top sex acts and telling dirty jokes.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about The Happytime Murders, however, is the fact that it opens with the suggestion that it will be a social commentary on race relations, only to never follow that setup through.  At the beginning of the film, it is explained to us that even though humans and puppets exist in the same world, the puppets are seen as an inferior race to the humans.  The movie even makes a point about how one puppet character bleached his skin (fur? felt?) in order to be more accepted by humans.  This idea and its potential had me intrigued at the outset, but while the filmmakers had the guts to make a filthy, R-rated puppet movie, they chickened out on the more powerful underlying commentary that could have raised this movie to another level.

Finally, The Happytime Murders is not an attractive movie, even beyond the ugliness of its content.  It might have been the fact that the filmmakers had to shoot around the puppeteers, but the film has no real visual style.  Visual style may not be a necessary element for a comedy like this, but there comes a point when a lack of visual standards turns into a distraction.  And the ugliness extends beyond the look of the film into the editing, which was noticeably choppy at times.

The crime story at the center of The Happytime Murders is a decent mystery and the film does have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, but if you don’t find yourself on board for the puppet depravity, you could find yourself in for one long ride, even at only ninety minutes.

The Happytime Murders opens today at the AMC Kent Station 14, the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and the Landing Stadium 14 in Renton.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.
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