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The Happytime Murders (2018, Brian Henson)

The Happytime Murders is exceptionally foul and exceptionally funny. It’s set in a world where animate puppets and humans co-exist, with the human bigotry eradicated because they’ve all decided to hate on the puppets instead. There’s no explanation of how the puppets came to be or when they came to be or whatnot; they just exist. In the past, before the humans started hating on them, the puppets were entertainers who loved to dance. Now they’re all hooked on sucrose, which gets them high. It’s such intense sucrose it’d kill a human to ingest it, which both is and isn’t important to the story.

The first act sort of sets up the world—the lead, a disgraced ex-cop puppet private investigator (performed by a fantastic Bill Barretta), narrates. He’s in the City of Angels, he works out of a crappy office, he’s got a loyal human girl Friday for a secretary (Maya Rudolph, who’s also really good), and he’s trying to make things right for the downtrodden puppets. The movie opens with him getting a case from a fetching nymphomaniac puppet (Dorien Davies); it initially seems like a somewhat crude riff on a film noir, down to Barretta’s office looking like Sam Spade’s.

However, once Barretta gets to the puppet porn store, it’s clear Happytime is going a very, very, very different route. In fact, Barretta’s going to end up forgetting about client Davies because he gets wrapped up in a spree killing case where someone is targeting the puppets who used to be on a popular primetime sitcom, “The Happytime Gang.” Barretta’s involvement starts wrong place, wrong time, but then his old boss (a likable but dreadfully miscast Leslie David Baker) forces Barretta to work the case—as a consultant—with his old partner, human Melissa McCarthy.

Barretta and McCarthy used to be the best of partners, then there was a shooting gone wrong and McCarthy had Barretta not just drummed off the force but also got a law passed puppets can’t be cops. It’s unclear if the no puppet cops thing is nationwide or just L.A. The movie gives up on relevant exposition once McCarthy shows up, which is kind of fine. Todd Berger’s script has constantly hilarious moments but it’s not a good script, it just knows expertly executed puppets (by the post-Muppet Henson company no less) being inordinately obscene is going to be funny. Any deeper and Berger wouldn’t be able to handle it.

So it’s up to Barretta and McCarthy to get over their past history and solve the case. Or just survive the case, as they don’t just have to the bad guy to ferret out, they’ve also got to contend with jackass human FBI agent Joel McHale sticking his nose in. Oh, and Barretta’s ex-girlfriend, human Elizabeth Banks; he didn’t leave things quite right with her.

Mostly the movie is McCarthy mugging through scenes with puppets, aptly delivering filthy dialogue, with some nods at legitimate character development for Barretta as he reclaims his previous potential. While also delivering filthy dialogue.

It’s hilarious. McCarthy’s really good with the puppets. So good it doesn’t even matter she’s a barely shaded caricature who gets less personality in the script than Rudolph. More than Banks though, who initially seems like stunt casting, then not, then stunt casting again. Meanwhile McHale is… in a miscasting boat similar to Baker’s, but with less likability.

As far as Henson’s direction goes… well, the puppet work is outstanding. He does a great job directing the puppets. Otherwise, it’s a fairly bland effort on his part. Every shot seems constructed to be as simple as possible, which might be requisite given the puppets—the end credits show just how much work went into the production—but it’s nowhere near as enthusiastic as the movie needs. Maybe if Henson hadn’t shot it wide Panavision aspect ratio without any idea how to fill the frame; though Mitchell Amundsen’s similarly bland photography doesn’t help things. The puppetry is no doubt inventive, imaginative; the direction is neither.

The Happytime Murders isn’t a very good movie, but it’s still a somewhat awesome one. Barretta, McCarthy, and—to a smaller, but significant degree—Rudolph, make it happen.

It’s so exceptionally foul-minded, it has to be seen to be believed.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Todd Berger, based on a story by Berger and Dee Austin Robertson; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Brian Scott Olds; music by Christopher Lennertz; production designer, Chris L. Spellman; costume designer, Arjun Bhasin; produced by Ben Falcone, Jeffrey Hayes, Henson, and Melissa McCarthy; released by STX Entertainment.

Starring Bill Barretta (Phil Philips), Melissa McCarthy (Detective Connie Edwards), Maya Rudolph (Bubbles), Leslie David Baker (Lt. Banning), Dorien Davies (Sandra), Joel McHale (Agent Campbell), Victor Yerrid (Larry), Kevin Clash (Lyle), Drew Massey (Goofer), and Elizabeth Banks (Jenny).


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, Steve Barron)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles uses Central Park as an establishing shot for an apartment at 11th and Bleecker. I’ll let you Google Map that one.

The film’s worth talking about for four reasons—the amazing animatronics, the editing, the anti-Japanese sentiment and Judith Hoag. It’s also amusing to watch for Sam Rockwell sightings, but that one isn’t so much a discussion point.

For people who care about puppetry and animatronics, the work the Jim Henson workshop does in Turtles is phenomenal. They create five entirely believable creatures. It’s so effective, in fact, I’m glad Josh Pais both did the voice and the costume work for his character… so I can identify him as the film’s worst performance.

There are some terrible performances from the regular actors here, but Pais is atrocious. His characterization seems like a mix between James Cagney and George Jefferson. If Turtles weren’t a stupid movie with a bad script, he’d be the one ruining it.

Switching up the list a bit—Judith Hoag. While Elias Koteas (as her romantic interest) is okay, she’s great opposite all the costumes and animatronic nonsense. She makes the fantastical nature work… at least until her character disappears to give more attention to the lame fight scenes.

The great editing—in the fight scenes and not—makes Turtles mildly tolerable. The anti-Japanese sentiment is bewildering but captivating.

Awful performances from James Saito and Obata Toshirô—the only Japanese actors—don’t help.

Turtles is terrible. Hoag aside, there’s nothing “good.”

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Barron; screenplay by Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck, based on a story by Herbeck and a comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird; director of photography, John Fenner; edited by William D. Gordean, Sally Menke and James R. Symons; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; produced by David Chan, Kim Dawson and Simon Fields; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring David Forman & Brian Tochi (Leonardo), Michelan Sisti & Robbie Rist (Michelangelo), Leif Tilden & Corey Feldman (Donatello), Josh Pais (Raphael), Judith Hoag (April O’Neil), Elias Koteas (Casey Jones), Michael Turney (Danny Pennington), Kevin Clash (Splinter), James Saito (The Shredder), Obata Toshirô (Tatsu), Raymond Serra (Chief Sterns) and Jay Patterson (Charles Pennington).


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Muppet Treasure Island (1996, Brian Henson)

As a Muppet fan, the thing I miss most about Muppet Treasure Island is the Muppets. Oh, they’re around, but in neither of the film’s principal roles. Instead, it’s Tim Curry and Kevin Bishop–and their performances both have ups and downs.

But neither is wholly responsible–in Bishop’s case, the script changes his character quite a bit without reasonable impetus, and Curry seems to be missing directorial attention. So, while Bishop nonsensically abandons his friends to hang out with Curry, Curry is busy acting awkwardly around the Muppets. Maybe if Curry was really good with Bishop, it’d make up for the script failings or for Curry’s nonperformance with his Muppet costars, but he’s not. He’s better than he is with the Muppets, but he’s still performing like everything is a monologue and he’s got the stage to himself. It hurts Bishop’s performance too, especially near the end.

Some of that fault falls, clearly, on Henson. He’s not ready for a film of this complexity–the constant mix of Muppet and live action (versus Muppet Christmas Carol, which really only had Michael Caine)–not to mention some rather intricate effects shots. The effects come off as ambitious without being successful (John Fenner’s photography might be an accomplice).

It’s too bad because much of Treasure Island is fantastic. The songs are food, the main Muppet performances are great (the one-offs, created just for this film, not so much), the script is funny.

It’s just too human–not enough Muppet.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brian Henson; screenplay by Jerry Juhl, Kirk R. Thatcher and James V. Hart, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; director of photography, John Fenner; edited by Michael Jablow; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Val Strazovec; produced by Martin G. Baker and Henson; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash, Bill Barretta and Frank Oz as the Muppets.

Starring Tim Curry (Long John Silver), Kevin Bishop (Jim Hawkins), Billy Connolly (Billy Bones), Jennifer Saunders (Mrs. Bluberidge), Danny Blackner (Short Stack Stevens), Harry Jones (Easy Pete) and David Nicholls (Captain Flint).


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