In the history of Jim Henson's family friendly Muppet empire, there's always been a darker streak. Not only has that streak been exhibited through the Muppet franchise proper, but it was also shown in films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. While the world treated them as family friendly material, Henson saw them as a vehicle to tell stories throughout all genres. Now, his son Brian, unencumbered by the Muppet name, has brought The Happytime Murders to living, breathing life, exemplifying that value in spades in a fast and fuzzy R-rated romp.
In a world where puppet and human live side by side, Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a disgraced former cop, eking out a living as a private eye. When he takes a case that looks like a simple ransom play, he eventually finds himself drawn into a string of murders connected to the children's television show, "The Happytime Gang." Solving this case is going to take some tough fluff, as well as some discipline in reuniting with his estranged former partner (Melissa McCarthy) to crack the mystery surrounding The Happytime Murders.
While the actual story to The Happytime Murders is pretty basic, writers Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson actually remembered to put a story into place. So while you've got a basic mystery plot, with some stock personal beats from typical entries in the detective noir genre, it's a basic enough structure that it doesn't collapse under its true purpose. That purpose is as a skeletal story to hang a bunch of puppet gags off of, and when it comes time for the jokes to fly, The Happytime Murders lets them play out to full effect. Also, in true Muppet fashion, there's plenty of gags that parody everything from cop dramas to Basic Instinct, paying homage to all influences with a tongue firmly planted in its puppet-loving cheek.
There are a lot of things you wouldn't expect puppets to be doing in The Happytime Murders, but for those who've followed director Brian Henson's post-Muppet career through his Henson Alternative brand, you know this is his bread and butter. And though the film is quite raunchy, definitely earning its R-rating, it never feels like it's throwing that content in just for the sake of being naughty without a purpose. These jokes work, and they work hard, to craft a world where puppets are more human than they've ever been. It also helps that the film barely makes the hour and a half mark, allowing a vicious pace of gags and story to blur past in entertaining fashion, without getting stale or repetitive.
Perhaps the most impressive part about The Happytime Murders is how it fully commits to its premise, both on the page and through the performances of its human cast. Melissa McCarthy in particular is game for anything that her felt co-stars can dish out, and it only helps sell the extreme behavior that's coupled with the novelty of having a cast that's partially made out of felt creatures. You can believe that this world between humans and puppets works, and that's a testament not only to the performances of the actors on screen, but also the puppeteers that are also present, just concealed by clever camera framing and some digital effects magic.
In the wrong hands, The Happytime Murders would have been all fluff and no action. But having Brian Henson and his team of puppeteers tackling the concept only makes it into what could, and should, be the start of the revival of such projects. Bringing the same sort of tone that he used to play with in the later Muppet films, only in a more adult fashion, Henson's directing matches Berger's script in taking a beloved staple of childhood, and turning it into something more. As easy as it may sound to make a film like this, were this film cast and directed by folks who couldn't interact properly with a mix of flesh and felt, it would have been a disaster. But as it stands, The Happytime Murders is a fluffing hysterical comedy that plays to nostalgia, only to subvert it in the name of humor. Jim Henson, as always, should be proud of his son.