By this time next week, many of us will have seen The Jim Henson Company’s new puppet film The Happytime Murders, and one of two things will happen.  We’ll either be delightfully surprised at its nuance and clever send-ups, or our suspicions will be confirmed and this film will be a two-hour exercise in puppet dick jokes.

Admittedly, not everyone shares this opinion – from what I’ve heard from friends and seen around the internet, there’s a huge market for this sort of gross-out comedy.  The Deadpool movies prove that people still want to see raunchy humor from a well-recognized genre (like superheroes, crime noir, or, dare I say, puppets).  I am not one of these people.

If you’re familiar with the term “working blue“, that likely means you agree with its negative connotation.  In a nutshell, it refers to the comedy crutch of using profanity, sexual content, and other crude content to get a cheap laugh.  It’s easy to add raunch to a scene to get a laugh, but it’s rarely clever.

From the first trailer and through all of the current promotional content, this is all we’ve seen from the film.  There are so many curse words and silly string and oral fixations in the short videos we’ve seen, there’s hardly any room for plot or character. I don’t know about you, but those are the types of things I find important in the films I choose to watch.

I also have to assume that the shock value of puppets being the ones to say naughty things will wear off pretty quickly, and the film will have to prove itself through clever writing and situations for the ensuing 90 minutes.  Needless to say, I’m dubious it can be done.  If the trailers are an actual testament to what the full-length movie will entail, I don’t imagine I’ll be able to stand an entire evening of one prolonged “I can’t believe a puppet just said that!” joke.

Of course, the mere fact that this movie is about dirty puppets isn’t enough to justify the attention of your average ToughPigs reader.  But the surname of the director, as well as his namesake company, is more than enough.  Brian Henson, the man responsible for the perfection that is The Muppet Christmas Carol (in his directorial debut, no less) took the reins of this film. Although he has directed a lot of TV throughout his career, this is only his third movie, following MCC and Muppet Treasure Island.  All signs should point to another film of that caliber.

In trying to look beyond the gross-out stuff, we might get a taste of Brian’s signature style.  The full-bodied puppets might be cool, with moving legs and interesting proportions.  There’s a lot of world-building that needed to be done, and Brian is the type of creative who could properly oversee that element.  However, nobody’s talking about legs or internal logic – those things are completely overshadowed by puppet spooge.

While we hope for some of that aforementioned stuff from Brian, we know what we can expect from the other half of his career.  When he’s not directing episodes of Sid the Science Kid or Word Party, he’s working on projects like Puppet Up and Stuffed and Unstrung – the raunchy live puppet improv shows.  Somehow, I have no problem with the content of Puppet Up, as improv seems to lend itself to blue humor much more naturally.  I’m not a performer, but if I was, I’d find it much easier to say something dirty in the moment for a laugh than to try and take my time and build a clever or original situation.  It’s also interesting to see the wheels turn in the minds of the puppeteers during those live shows, which is something we’re not privy to in a film which not only doesn’t show the performers, but is also heavily scripted before the cameras start rolling.

It’s also a bit shocking to see the Henson name mostly left off of a Henson film.  Sure, Brian has been doing the interview circuits, but not one trailer that I’ve seen bears the Henson name, either in identifying the director or the production company.  Aside from the so-small-you-can’t-see-it-even-if-you-squint trailer credits (which doesn’t appear in most of the commercials), the only identifier I’ve seen is on the poster, which bears the “HA!” logo.  I’m most familiar with that logo as “Henson Associates” from the 1980s, but it’s been recycled as the “Henson Alternative” logo.  Not that anyone other than Muppet fanatics would recognize either incaration, even as a product of the Henson Company.  It’s almost as if the film is deliberately distancing itself from the Henson name, avoiding the public’s inevitable questioning of “Would Jim like this?” or “Would Jim approve?”  I can’t answer that, but I can raise a suspicious eyebrow or two.

Honestly, it makes sense that the Henson Company would want to erase their name from the production.  Not because they aren’t proud of what they’ve made, but because it seems that they don’t want to be solely associated with properties they don’t own (like Muppets and Sesame Street), underperforming franchises (like Fraggle Rock or Labyrinth), and preschool content.  That said, the Henson Company is still a family-owned company with strong ties to the legacy of its founder.  I presume there was some bending of how they defined the mission statement of the organization to justify this film.

This also explains why there’s been almost no Happytime coverage coming from the Muppet fan sites.  Sure, sites like ToughPigs and the Muppet Mindset don’t have anywhere near the same reach as Jimmy Kimmel Live or whatever, but no attempt is being made by the Henson Company or STX Entertainment to try and excite the Muppet fan community.  Do they know that we’ll disapprove?  Or that we would question what Jim Henson’s reaction to the film would be?  Better to ignore us than invite our premature critiques, I guess.

In addition to Brian Henson, another Muppet alum is front-and-center.  Bill Barretta, the performer responsible for Pepe the King Prawn, Bobo the Bear, and Johnny Fiama, as well as the current performer for Jim Henson’s original characters Dr. Teeth and Rowlf the Dog, plays Phil Phillips, the private investigator who fornicates and curses through the film. (It’s no surprise that the character who goes blue so much is actually blue.)  I’m a little sad to see Barretta’s talents being used in this way, if only because I’d love to see him in something substantial without that dirty comedy crutch.  Barretta is hilarious and talented, but will anyone be talking about his performance or just the crazy crap comes out of his mouth?

What my issue with Happytime Murders comes down to is this: I expected more.  The combination of talents like Brian Henson and Bill Barretta should be something exciting.  A story set in a puppet/human hybrid world has endless possibilities.  A successful feature film involving puppets can mean wonders for future Muppet/Sesame/Henson projects.  But then I watch those trailers, and all I see is the lowest common denominator.  I expected more from The Jim Henson Company, and I wish on every one of Kermit’s shooting stars that I’m wrong, and that Happytime will be a surprise critical success.  I guess we’ll find out this weekend!

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by Ben Nichols

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