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The Happytime Murders

Year: 2018
Production Co: Henson Alternative/STX Entertainment
Director: Brian Henson
Producer: Ben Falcone/Brian Henson/Melissa McCarthy
Writer: Todd Berger/Dee Austin Robertson
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie David Baker

I was going to see this, then I wasn't, then I thought I might, and I finally did – and I'm glad. Not because it's a great movie but because there's a lot to like that's not what you expect, not just in the movie itself but about its existence. You'd have thought after the critical reception we had another Movie 43 on our hands, but you might be surprised.

The first thing to note is the world building. It's not the kind of thing you'd normally pay attention to in a movie like this, but the same way David Ayer's Bright did, The Happytime Murders presents a world that's fantastical to us but everyday and lived-in to the characters in it.

It's a world where humans and puppets live uneasily side by side, where puppets can drive, smoke, drink, have sex or relationships with humans and deal drugs but where dogs are of particular danger to them and – yes, as you've seen in the movie's most obtuse gag in the trailer – the males of the species ejaculate huge amounts of silly string when they orgasm.

And here's the result of that. However much you respond to the characters and story in it, it's a believable place, and the machinations of the plot reveal factoids about how things work in it pretty expertly throughout the movie.

The second thing is that despite it being a comedy and having laughs, it's actually an almost perfectly structured modern noir, one that understands the tropes and trappings and respects them just like Who Framed Roger Rabbit did decades ago.

Just like in the standout examples of the genre it deals with a hard boiled PI, Phil (Bill Baretta) on a case bought to him by a femme fatale, one that leads through the seedy underbelly, porn shops, chop shops and sun-baked streets of LA.

Phil was the first ever puppet cop but was drummed out of the force when he fired at a suspect who had a gun on his human partner, Connie (Melissa McCarthy). Phil's shot went wide, killing an innocent puppet nearby, and after Connie testified against him it resulted in a bill banning puppets from joining the force, so he became a PI for hire.

That's on top of a simmering undercurrent of racism against them in the human population, the same one we saw against Orcs (as stand-ins for gangland blacks and Latinos) in Bright and that we see against minorities in the real world.

Checking the records at a seedy porn shop he knows, Phil is in the office when the place it attacked, the owner – the former star of top-rated sitcom The Happytime Gang – gunned down. The cops get involved and the grizzled chief (Leslie David Baker, sardonic office drone Stanley from The Office) orders Phil and Connie to work together again to solve the case despite the bad blood between them.

When Phil's own brother – who's also among the ex-cast of the sitcom – is mauled to death after someone lets dogs into his Hollywood Hills mansion, it becomes apparent former cast members of The Happytime Gang are being targeted, and it's up to bickering odd couple Phil and Connie to get the bottom of it before any other fuzzy, stuffed bodies show up.

The dislike around the film might be because it's not actually an out and out comedy. Writers Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson seem more interested in the recognisable structure and motifs of the genre, one which just happens to have puppets in it but which doesn't contain as many obtuse jokes and gags as you expect. The silly string scene from the trailer is the most extreme example of the kind of humour you're waiting for, and maybe some people wanted it to be more freewheeling and tasteless, more of a laugh riot.

It also comes from one of the names that's synonymous with puppetry in the entertainment industry, from a label called 'Henson Alternative' and directed by Brian Henson himself, so no matter what other failings you think it has you can't fault the artistry of bringing humans and puppets together.

Decades ago we all marvelled at how Kermit could ride a bicycle but as the end credits outtakes show, The Happytime Murders has all been done with very clever angles, puppetry techniques and green screen.

It's a shame the technical elements and script weren't more appreciated, because I think there's more here than even people who saw this film realise.

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