It ain’t easy being a puppet.
Yeah, sure, everyone’s got it tough. Life can pull all our strings, make us feel like lumps of stuffing and felt. But for puppets, it’s worse. For them, life can really sock it to ’em.
Phil Phillips knows what it’s like to be a puppet in the City of Angels—to deal with the verbal abuse and felt jokes, to have neighborhood kids pull off an eye or a nose. Phil’s seen it all, and it’s not pretty. For a while, it seemed like puppets were making some inroads in society. The Happytime Gang, the first sitcom with a mostly puppet cast, was a crossover hit. Phil’s own brother, Larry, was one of its stars. Phil was making his own mark—the first puppet police officer in L.A.
But that was before. Before the accident. Before his own partner, Connie Edwards, turned on him. Before they took away his badge and made Phil feel like he wasn’t worth his own filling.
Now Phil spends his days drinking and nights snooping. He’s a private eye these days, making a living off puppets whose hands wander and morals stray. It’s messy work, but hey, it’s hard to make a living without getting your felt a little dirty.
But when Phil sees Mr. Bumblypants, one of Happytime’s old stars, get his stuffing shredded in an X-rated puppet store, the detective suspects it’s more than a robbery gone wrong. And when his own brother gets torn apart by dogs, he knows the rest of the gang’s probably gonna be in trouble, too.
He’s gotta find the killer. Stop the stuffing shred and bring the perp to justice.
But to do that, he’ll have to partner with Connie again. They’ll have to sew up those old wounds.
Unless they tear open a few new ones.
Puppet murder is bad. Thus, the fact that Phil and Connie intend to stop said murders must be good. Right?
Phil’s secretary, Bubbles, seems nice enough. She’s one of the few humans who seems to have a genuine regard and appreciation for puppets. “No matter what they look like on the outside, they’re fluffy and good on the inside,” she says. It’s a nice thought, even if the movie rebuts it at almost every cinematic moment.
Larry is very excited that The Happytime Gang is going into syndication, because the royalties he gets will allow him to pay his Scientology dues. Ezra and Cara, two other former cast members, now reside somewhere in the California desert, living and working out of a worship center and barbecue restaurant they call Adam’s Rib. (Both of them are featured in the restaurant’s advertisements, with Ezra dressed up as Jesus and Cara as an angel.)
Mr. Bumblypants, one of the murdered puppets, is a rabbit; before he’s murdered, he excretes colored Easter eggs. A number of other bunnies spend time at a strip club: One of them, while watching the stripper gyrate on stage, says that she makes him feel “like Easter in my pants.”
Hoo boy. Get your seatbelt on for this section.
A lengthy, exceedingly graphic scene involving two puppets is full of explicit movements, sounds and puppet bodily “fluids.” Elsewhere, we see a female puppet’s anatomy when it becomes clear she’s not wearing underwear. A still photo of the same puppet pictures her in a lewd, compromising position with a female human—a human that we later learn she’s married to.
Ezra and Cara are, apparently, a long-standing romantic couple despite also being first cousins. Phil and Connie meet their children: One has three eyes, the other just one; and they both communicate in chicken squawks.
We see lots of puppets kiss. A human exotic dancer works on stage in tight shorts and a revealing top. Puppet prostitutes try to interest Connie in what they have to offer. When Connie tells them that she’s a woman, they pause for a beat and then tell her that that’s just fine with them. Another male puppet offers to perform oral sex on Connie, also believing that she’s a man.
A puppet lounges in a hot tub with a human conquest, describing the color of his pubic hair. Connie mistakenly grabs Phil’s crotch. We hear several references and double entendres related to various bits of human and puppet anatomy. In the credits, we see pornographic puppet DVD cases that reference various sex acts and fetishes, including homosexual sex.
Puppets die in many terrible ways (at least, if you’re a puppet). Several have their heads literally blown off, leaving corpses with fluff coming out of the necks. (Two other puppets get shot in the head, though without quite so much stuffing carnage.) Others are shot repeatedly in the torso, killing them.
One puppet is found washed up on a beach, apparently drowned. (Police officers tell everyone to avert their eyes as they go about wringing the puppet corpse out.) Phil and Connie find the decapitated heads of two puppets in bed together. Perhaps the most gruesome (?) act of puppet carnage we see involves a puppet being pulled apart by a few smallish dogs like a chew toy. Stuffing and puppet parts lie everywhere in the aftermath.
Humans don’t get off scot-free, either. One gets into a car shortly before it explodes; we then see a human figure burning inside. Another man is knocked out by his own decorative desk orbs. Several other people are incapacitated during a fight involving an unattached steering wheel.
Connie fights and wrestles with several puppets, biting one in the privates as they thrash around in a hot tub. She threatens one with a gun, forcing her adversary to treat the puppet women he relates to with more respect. Phil pummels a few human ne’er-do-wells, smashing their legs repeatedly with a crowbar, hitting and kicking them dozens of times in the crotch and, finally, jumping on their kneecaps.
Some neighborhood kids rip the eye off a puppet. Phil hits one of the kids in the face and forces him to give the eye back. Phil gets roughed up in prison—repeatedly being hit in the stomach by human prisoners. But given the puppet’s lack of bones, Phil says that his adversaries are essentially just “fluffing a pillow.”
Connie folds Phil into a cooler. A puppet is nearly sucked into a jet engine. Two humans are almost incinerated in a booby-trapped house. At least one person is rendered unconscious with chloroform. There’s talk of ripping apart puppets and turning them into jackets. Connie shoots her car stereo several times.
When Connie and Phil are still partners, Connie is shot in the gut by a puppet villain, necessitating an emergency trip to a puppet hospital where she receives a puppet liver transplant. (We see Connie’s hands covered in blood, and she’s apparently unconscious when wheeled into the hospital.)
Nearly 100 f-words and at least 35 s-words. We also hear many uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “c–k,” “d–n,” “d–k,” “h—,” “p—y” and “crap.” A puppet uses an obscene gesture. God’s name is misused at least 20 times, a dozen of those with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused another 20 times.
Phil smokes a lot of cigarettes, often blowing that smoke into the faces of the folks he’s talking with. (Connie lights a pair of cigarettes and smokes them both simultaneously to annoy Phil.) He keeps a bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer and pours himself a stiff one. Other puppets smoke too, and they hold or have drinks near them at bars and parties. Larry and his human paramour have apparently emptied a pair of margarita glasses.
Puppets sometimes slip into the terrible grip of addiction—not drugs, but sugar. Connie visits a rundown sugar house where addicts (akin to heroin addicts) live what’s left of their lives in a sugar-addled haze; one offers to perform sexual acts in exchange for sugar. (When Connie tastes some sugar on a mirror, she gags; one of the residents then admits that he urinated on the mirror.)
Connie is a sugar addict herself. When she and Phil find themselves in a gang-like establishment, she’s forced to prove that she has a puppet liver by snorting a great deal of purple sugar through a licorice whip: She loves the stuff and consumes a great deal of it, acting incredibly impaired afterwards. Phil goes to Connie’s apartment and tragically finds the evidence of sugar addiction everywhere, including a refrigerator filled with pancake syrup. (He somberly throws it all in the trash.)
Several puppets are engaged in gambling, and Connie joins the game. We see puppets urinate and defecate strange objects. We hear lots of anatomical-related gags. Bubbles, the secretary, has a knack for picking locks. Phil and Connie break laws in order to bring evildoers to justice—including Phil breaking out of prison.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen nasty puppets at work. The first puppet shows—the Punch & Judy productions dating back to the Renaissance—were filled with violence and bawdy humor. The Broadway hit Avenue Q featured adult themes and language. Team America: World Police spotlighted a trunkful of foul-mouthed, sex-addled marionettes.
But the fact that these raunchy puppets are the creation of Brian Henson, son of the late Muppet mastermind Jim Henson, gives Happytime Murders a special, sad twist.
“It’s a good thing shaking up what we do with puppets, taking them into this R-rated world. It’s healthy,” Brian told USA Today.
Yeah, I’m not so sure about that.
What Brian is trying to suggest here, I think, is that puppets—at least puppets in America—have been thought of as the property of a PBS-approved childhood. They teach children to count and to be kind to one another, but their storytelling possibilities haven’t been stretched into more explicit territory. Jim Henson was all about stretching those possibilities. In now-classic films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, Henson’s Muppets left Sesame Street and entered a world of high fantasy.
But Happytime Murders? A way to advance the art and storytelling possibilities of puppetry? Why, that suggestion’s funnier than anything in the movie itself.
Happytime doesn’t stretch puppetry: It cheapens it. It takes all of the medium’s creative possibilities and wastes it to tell, essentially, the same gag for 90 minutes. Look at how crass these puppets can be! Listen to how much they can swear! Isn’t it funny when they have sex? ISN’T IT!?
Listen, I know that Jim Henson’s more out-of-the-box creations weren’t necessarily critical or commercial successes right away. But even then, you had to give him credit for reaching higher.
His son reaches lower here—crotch-level low. In using these very Muppet-like puppets and in twisting the Henson legacy, Brian Henson has made the world a little more crass, sullying the childhood memories of many.
I’ve seen worse movies this year. But I don’t know if I’ve seen anything that made me more sad.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.