There's a powerful juvenile allure to the raunchy puppets in The Happytime Murders, just as there was in cruder predecessors like Peter Jackson's Meet the Feebles or Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police. After all, children who grew up on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and their own collections of plush lovies cross a short bridge to adolescence, when they learn all the swear words and obscure sexual maneuvers in the lexicon. It's only natural that they'd look at the furry friends still piled up in the closet and imagine much cruder scenarios then they did when they were little. It may not be sophisticated, but it has its base appeal.
There's enough felt-on-felt action in The Happytime Murders to power a city grid on static electricity, and that's to say nothing of the sex shops and strip clubs that populate the film, or the violence and foul language that permeates its puppet underworld. The film also happens to be directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppet maestro Jim Henson, so there's an illicit charge to it, like the weird, wayward rebel teen creating mischief behind his father's back. And unlike Meet the Feebles and Team America, Henson brings a technical sophistication to the action that could potentially elevate it, particularly in the way his puppets interact with their human counterparts.
Yet the truer points of comparison for the film are Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the L.A. noirs that inform its story about a down-on-his-luck private eye who investigates a series of murders in a segregated city. It's here where the film's failures are thrown into a sharp relief: Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are both impeccably stylized plays on a decades-old genre, but like all great procedurals, their byzantine mysteries ultimately smuggle in deeper insights about Los Angeles or Hollywood and the secret forces that drive them. Henson can't get past puppet-porn fetishes and a graphic reference to the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. His film is not merely crude, it's simple.
Humans and puppets live side-by-side in this Los Angeles, but it's apparent from the start that the puppets are treated like second-class citizens — the helpless, boneless, fluff-filled targets for bullies citywide. Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) was once the exception as the first puppet to serve as a detective in the LAPD, but he lost his job after failing to protect his partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), in a shootout. Now a private detective, Phil gets roped into a case where the stars of puppet-heavy TV show called "The Happytime Gang" are getting bumped off one by one, and he's being set up to take the fall for it. That brings him back into Detective Edwards' sphere, because she's the only person who can vouch for his innocence and help him find the real culprit responsible. She's salty about it, in the way only R-rated Melissa McCarthy can be.
The puppets in The Happytime Murders are coded as a minority group, but Henson and his screenwriter, Todd Berger, are reluctant to give that allegory the full airing it deserves. For all the complexity of the puppeteering —underlined in a closing-credit blooper reel that shows puppeteers in green-screen suits, plying their trade — the tension between puppets and humans is never treated as more than surface-level hostility, which has the effect of flattening out the backdrop and sapping a lot of the comic energy. When it becomes obvious that the film is merely interested in being naughty for the sake of it, the pace sags like Kermit's limbs.
The Happytime Murders goes to disgusting extremes to top the puppet-sex that brought Team America close to an NC-17, but most of the scattered laughs are scored by the humans, particularly McCarthy, who's always funny when completely uncorked, and Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil's devoted secretary with a seen-it-all deadpan. A scene where they pair up to investigate a potential hideout plays like a mini Bridesmaids reunion, full of loose talk and easy camaraderie. It's bad enough that the puppets have to live on the margins. Here they have their own movie stolen out from under them.