In “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” Kermit the Frog gets amnesia. Not remembering who he is, Kermit creates a new identity, Phillip Phil, and he enters the world of advertising where he comes up with the unique idea to simply tell what a product a does. Phillip Phil, in short, is an honest frog, one who believes in the truth and sees that as the best path.
The director of the new film, “The Happytime Murders” is Brian Henson and the feature offers up a plethora of Muppet workshop creations. It is a movie produced, in part, by Henson Alternative, an adult-oriented division of the Jim Henson Company. It even has Muppet performers. In short, this is a movie made by people who are more than a little familiar with Kermit the Frog and his adventures.
Anyone watching “The Happytime Murders” who is remotely a fan of The Muppets will undoubtedly know the above and will therefore pause when the main character offers up his name – Phil Phillips. Voiced by Muppet performer Bill Barretta, Phil Phillips starts off the film as something of an anti-Kermit. Having left the police force under a cloud, Phillips has become a private eye with few scruples. He still has a sense of right and wrong, but he’s more than willing to cross the line when he thinks he can benefit from it, and we see him do just that as he gets caught up in an involved scheme after taking on a new puppet client, Sandra White (Dorien Davies).
The world in which we find Phillips is the best thing that “The Happytime Murders” has going for it. It is a world, much like in Muppet films, where both humans and puppets exist. The notable difference between this take and a traditional Muppet one is that here the puppets are very definitely second class citizens. They are abused by humans from all walks of life and there is even a contingent of puppets who do their best to make themselves more human- and less puppet-like. This includes actions such as bleaching their felt and changing their noses.
While one might expect the film to take this metaphor for racism and run with it, that doesn’t occur. It is used more for a stepping stone to attempted jokes than it is any sort of serious discussion about race and race relations.
This establishment of an idea and then lack of exploration plagues much of “The Happytime Murders.” We are told early on that Phillips and his former partner at the police, a human, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), had a falling out as a result of her coming down against him after a shooting. Although this tension is used when their relationship is reestablished during the main case in this film, one that brings up memories of their past, it dissipates almost immediately. Phillips is quickly willing to let the history go, as is Edwards. It doesn’t matter Edwards stance led to Philips’ life spiraling out of control for a couple decades, it is simply forgotten so the movie can move on to other stuff.
Ostensibly the script from Todd Berger, based on a story by Berger & Dee Austin Roberts, is a noir-ish private detective tale, but it is one with puppets, curses, and a whole lot of crude attempts at humor. It is an amalgam the film doesn’t get right. The mystery isn’t interesting, and while a couple of the jokes do land, the vast majority simply thud. The humor tends not to get beyond the sophomoric stance that simply mentioning bodily functions and utilizing four letter words is funny. When “The Happytime Murders” goes all out, like during a sequence at a puppet sex store, thereby truly upping the ante, it finds its best jokes, but those moments are few and far between.
There are some great puppet performances, and Maya Rudolph is hysterical as Phillips’ secretary, Bubbles. The good elements, however, do not outweigh the bad.
It is all a shame because, as seems to happen so often, there is an interesting world here that has been created, one worth exploring. We learn that humans can wind up with puppet organs and that it affects them in potentially unanticipated ways. We learn that puppets jones for sugar, that it provides them with a high (presumably more than the kind a four-year-old gets on the stuff), but “Happytime Murders” never goes past the issuance of the idea. The fact that they drink maple syrup is subtly included in one scene, but when it’s repeated later there is a sense that the movie ought to offer more than just having the syrup exist. It does not. It is a background thing and that works the first time but not the second.
I want more adult Muppet/puppet movies. I love the idea that these creatures can go out and be more than just great family fare, that they can offer something unique an different. That said, “The Hayppytime Murders” rarely gets past the easy joke; the world is established but never explored; and the characters are paper thin, trading on the audience’s understanding of relationships via other films.
If only Phillip Phil could have stepped at some point and told them the way this was all going to work out.
photo credit: STX Entertainment