Puppet murder probe not for the faint-hearted

Melissa McCarthy and her puppet partner investigate murders in The Happytime Murders.
Melissa McCarthy and her puppet partner investigate murders in The Happytime Murders.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES



91 minutes/Opens today/2.5 stars

The story: In a world where puppets live alongside humans, puppet ex-cop Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is now a down-and-out private investigator. When the retired cast members of sitcom The Happytime Gang start getting picked off, he gets drawn into the case because his brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) was part of the show. Phil's human ex-partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is assigned to the murders and they immediately butt heads. Meanwhile, he also has an extortion case on his hands from femme fatale puppet Sandra White (Dorien Davies).

In the hit musical Avenue Q, puppets swore, were racist and had sex. If that was too much for you, stay away from The Happytime Murders.

The puppets here cuss constantly, commit acts of violence and take drugs. In an early indication of how far director Brian Henson - son of renowned puppeteer Jim Henson - is willing to go, Phil stops by a sex shop and finds a cow being vigorously milked for the making of a puppet pornographic film.

And if you ever wondered what the infamous Sharon Stone leg-crossing scene from Basic Instinct (1992) would look like with a puppet instead, well, wonder no more.

We are definitely a long way from the wholesome and kid-friendly Sesame Street television series.

It is more like mean streets for the puppets as they are second-class citizens who are frisked by the police and regularly discriminated against by most of the human population. If the link to real-life racism is not clear enough, there are also jokes about a puppet who gets bleached to look lighter.

Often though, the film feels mean-spirited. Phil is self-hating, characters yell and scream at each other and there is a fair bit of misogyny, even though McCarthy's Connie gets to challenge some of it.

Neither is the comedy on point, and the one-liners and zingers mostly fail to hit their mark.

What is impressive, though, is how all the puppet characters come vividly to life. You really have to admire the art and craft of the puppetry when a puppet gets viciously ripped apart by dogs and you feel slightly queasy from watching.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'Puppet murder probe not for the faint-hearted'. Print Edition | Subscribe