The best art provokes a reaction; and Brian Henson’s new film offering, The Happytime Murders, has done just that among the Muppet fan community. Unfortunately, this isn’t Henson’s greatest cinematic achievement. What it accomplishes is a more than serviceable job at being precisely what it’s supposed to be – not much more and nothing less. There was a time when the Henson Company didn’t make films; they made press releases (about films that would never see the light of day). Nobody wanted to take the gamble, and this film does that several times over. Henson goes all-out with strange and funky directorial decisions.
Not every fan is going to be pleased. The current social climate instructs us to insert ourselves into every issue, no matter our interest level or how foreign it may be to us, and to pick one of two sides, less we be part of the problem. Most things in this world are neither wonderful nor terrible, yet we’re often goaded into picking a side and a position with 100% certainty. That’s not how the world works. Things often come down to “enough”. What is enough, or too much, for us to take is where we mark our red line of decency.
Muppet fans are not immune to polarization. We’re much like any other group of fans. There are still places within our community where fans debate whether or not people of color are less prioritized in this country or if LGBTQ individuals should enjoy equal rights, out in the open, like everybody else. I don’t get that kind of Bizarro World headspace, but it’s definitely among us. Muppet fans come from all walks of life and every political stripe. There was even a controversial ToughPigs article outlining how the values of Trump are contrary to the values and work of Jim Henson. Indeed, they are! I guess it all comes down to a feeling of condemnation by association.
For better or for worse, we are often defined by the company we keep. The point is that Muppet fandom is diverse, and much more so than many of us would like it to be. It’s not just Muppets. Enthusiasm for Dolly Parton, Christmastime pageantry, and the Peanuts gang are also among the few things that many devout Christians and the LGBTQ community have in common. It’s really not all that odd. We see ourselves reflected in them. Our reflections widely differ. That’s where the friction begins.
Tell a bunch of Sesame Street fans that you see Bert and Ernie as a gay couple and you’re bound to get various rabid reactions. In reality, they’re not straight, they’re not gay, and they’re not even simply puppets. Bert and Ernie are beautiful abstracts designed for audiences to connect with them in any way they see fit. Nothing’s right. Nothing’s wrong. As Jim’s signature Fraggle Rock character, Cantus, proclaims, “There are no rules. Those are the rules.” It’s all perfectly okay as designed by the great Jim Henson and his team of talented artisans. It’s simply not necessary to force other people to see this work the way we do. In fact, that’s downright unMuppety. If there’s one thing that the work of Jim Henson teaches us is that he didn’t promote the totality of anything. The non-preachy message of his media is that people are basically good and there’s always a better path we could be taking than the one we’re on. We merely need to look around once in a while to see where that could be and to keep our eyes on our own.
True art takes a risk of soaring to new heights or falling flat on its face. The Happytime Murders is no exception. Some things work; some things don’t, but mostly, it’s a delight to wait and see what happens. Happytime flounders between tonal schizophrenia and its rather predictable, boilerplate plot. Some moments are played straight as if the puppets are human. Other times Henson tends to throw playful, salacious imagery at the screen to see what sticks. Ultimately, we follow the mundane, rather than the amusing or titillating action in the margins, and that’s the film’s greatest crime. Neither Goofer nor the Rotten Cotton girls have much more screen time than in the trailers, yet they are part of the pulse of the picture. Maybe their scenes were cut in order to maintain a compact the 91 minute running time.
Unlike Meet the Feebles, Cool World, or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the puppets in this universe don’t enjoy much integration. They’re shoehorned into our world and float above it with no clear reason. They have nowhere to rest or to call home. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but the different worlds helped sell juxtaposition between toons and humans in Roger Rabbit and would have worked better here too. Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island showcase Brian Henson’s mastery of realistically combining puppets and people in frame. I was also hoping for more film noir touches by way of lighting and shot composition. I think it would add some needed pop to the film. Instead, Henson chooses a natural light look in order to balance blue fleece and human skin.
At a $40 million price tag, Happytime is $5 million under Segel’s The Muppets movie and $10 million shy of Muppets Most Wanted, yet I see very little of that budget onscreen compared to those films. Maybe it’s in how seamlessly the puppet action scenes are handled. The average person wouldn’t notice and that’s the mark of good filmmaking. It’s also not a great strategy for future investors.
The performances are what shine brightest. I can’t imagine another actor in the lead role than Melissa McCarthy. I think she’s a genius who can make anything funny. Some of her movies are bona fide turkeys, but she always rises to the occasion through her performance. That said, she’s a polarizing movie star in her own right. Maya Rudolph makes a meal out of her small role and steals every scene she’s in. Actors often get silly when performing around puppets. Rudolph, however, plays her role with a sweet sincerity that few people would expect. The film’s standout performance belongs to Bill Barretta’s Phil. We all know what a live wire and chameleon he can be with the Muppets. This film gives him the chance to provide a subtle and nuanced performance. Sure, he’s over the top when the scene calls for it, Happytime has plenty of that, but Barretta makes us believe in Phil in the quieter moments and that’s the most important ingredient.
Happytime Murders is a mixed bag. There’s something for every fan if you pay attention. Among Henson Alternative’s Miskreant Puppet players are many familiar faces. It helps the world seem cozy to us fans. There are also some distinct and beautifully built new puppets. I wish we could have entered their world a little more. It feels like a missed opportunity. In fact, there are a lot of missed opportunities. This is one incredibly ambitious film and, unlike Phil Phillips, it’s impossible to chase every lead. As Jim Henson found a way to give soul and context to his Muppets, Brian succeeds in doing the same with his cast. He just goes a different route.
This film won’t destroy the Henson name or ruin anyone’s childhood. It will push puppetry along to new avenues, beyond Avenue Q, and will serve as a litmus test of what does and doesn’t work with audiences. If you’ve made up your mind about this film then I’m not aiming to unmake it. It’s not a bad little film. Not at all! At least we now know more about the sex lives of interspecies puppets. I’m not sure how to feel about that, but we’re pointed to some answers whether we wanted to know or not. I give Happytime Murders 3/5 stars for trying to be the best it could be while falling short of the target. Fans, both the ones who support this film and the ones who don’t, get a 2/5 score for allowing this humble little film to come between us in unproductive ways. We all don’t have to like the same things and we could show a little more of Jim Henson’s grace toward the things we don’t. There are many shades between adoration and hatred. That’s right where this unlikely film from the Henson Company belongs.
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by James Carroll