Private investigator, Phil Philips (Bill Barretta-voice) works in the City of Angels, Los Angeles. He is a puppet. As in a Muppet puppet. Working out of an office in Chinatown, he turns up for work to be told by his assistant, Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) that he has a new client. In his office is Sandra White(Dorien Davies) the sexiest puppet he has seen in a while. She tells Phillips that she is being blackmailed and shows him the ransom note.
Sandra has a secret that she does not want to get out. She is a sexual deviant. Phillips recognises an element of the typeface and goes to investigate. He heads down to Puppet Pleasureland, a sex shop and brothel run by Vinny (Drew Massey-voice). The typeface matches a magazine that Vinny stocks. Phillips asks if he has records of the suppliers. Vinny sends him to a back office.
Whilst Phillips is in the back office checking through the records, a masked assailant comes into the store and kills Vinny and all of the store’s puppet patrons. The store, now a crime scene, is overrun by the LAPD turn up and detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) is the homicide lead. Edwards is Phillips ex-partner from when he was in the LAPD.
Edwards and Phillips are not on the best of terms. Edwards testified against Phillips after a case went wrong. Her testimony not only got him fired, it also created a law; the Phillips code. The code prohibited humans and puppets from working together in the LAPD.
Phillips goes to see his older brother, Larry (Victor Yerrid-voice). Larry is a semi-famous puppet performer from the nineties. He was in the first universally accepted puppet/human show, The Happytime Gang, and is proud of the fact. Phillips does not embrace humans the way his brother does, feeling that puppets will always be seen as second-class citizens.
Larry is entertaining a young lady in his home later that evening. When she goes to make cocktails for them, someone lets dogs into the house and the dogs rip Larry apart. With a second murder in such a short time and it being Phillips’ brother, Lieutenant Banning (Leslie David Baker), Edwards boss, tells her that she has to work with Phillips to solve the murders.
Working out that somebody is killing members of The Happytime Gang – Vinny had also been in the show – Edwards and Phillips go to see Lyle (Kevin Clash). Lyle runs a dive bar, gambling den for puppets only. When Phillips turns up with Edwards, they refuse to let her in. He tells them she has a puppet liver. She is forced to prove it by snorting a drug that only a puppet could survive. Edwards survives.
Whilst Edwards gets involved in a card game, Phillips and Lyle go to have a chat in the alley. Whilst in the alley, a car drives by and kills Lyle. Phillips sees Sandra White again. They have sex in his office. The FBI gets involved in the case and agent Campbell (Joe McHale) believes Phillips to be the chief suspect. Phillips goes on the run.
Phillips goes to see, Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). He has a soft spot for her as they used to be an item when his brother was working with her on the show. Edwards goes to find Goofer (Drew Massey-voice), another former alumnus of the show. Goofer has fallen on hard times and is an addict.
Back with Jenny, Phillips is walking her to her car. Jenny gets in the car. As Phillips walks away the car explodes into flames. The police turn up and see Phillips fleeing the scene. Phillips cannot go home. He goes to Edwards apartment. He recalls how they fell out.
She feels that he deliberately missed a shot because he did not want to shoot a fellow puppet, even though her life was in danger. His bullet missed the puppet that was holding her hostage and deflected off a pillar, killing a passerby, Jasper Jackabee, another puppet, in front of his young daughter.
Goofer turns up dead the next day, drowned in the sea. Agent Campbell is convinced it is Phillips behind the murders. Edwards and Phillips go to find the two surviving members of the show, Ezra and Cara, who live out of town. They find them dead. As they exit the building, they find themselves surrounded by FBI agents.
Back at the precinct, Campbell says they have a witness who can connect Phillips to the murders. It is Sandra. She is married to Jenny and says she was having an affair with Phillips. Campbell is happy with it, even as Edwards protest. Campbell suspends her.
Bubbles tells Edwards that she has been investigating Sandra White. She does not exist. They go to her apartment and find it empty. Edwards finds a secret room. In the room is a wall filled with photos of the cast of The Happytime Gang and Phillips. Phillips is the target. Sandra White is Jackabee’s daughter. The evidence would have cleared Phillips, but a booby-trap, triggered by Bubbles, incinerates the evidence.
Edwards breaks Phillips out of custody. They go after Sandra. Bubbles tracks down Sandra. She is escaping by private plane. Phillips confronts her and is shocked when he sees Jenny is still alive. Sandra double-crosses Jenny, knocking her out.
Phillips is taken by Sandra’s henchmen but is rescued by Edwards. Sandra takes Edwards hostage but Phillips shoots her and saves Edwards. The Phillips code is rescinded and Phillips is allowed to rejoin the force. The end.
The Happytime Murders is definitely a different film. From the Henson dynasty, Brian Henson, it has all the recognisable puppetry one remembers from the late seventies and into the eighties, except the humour is a lot more adult. A lot more. This is not a film for kids, not on any level. The humour is crude and sexualised.
Some of the jokes are laugh out loud funny, though not for the prudish. McCarthy is, in my biased opinion, as good as ever. There is a wonderful little scene in which she says she regretted not sleeping with one of her office colleagues. The colleague is played by her real-life husband, Ben Falcone. Falcone appears in most of McCarthy’s films.
The voice talent is as good as you would expect on a Henson production. Though McCarthy is top-billed, it is Bill Barretta’s film. As the voice of Phillips, the world-weary PI, he not only tells the story, he is the story.
Though The Happytime Murders is ostensibly a comedy, it does, in an opaque way, tackle bigger societal issues, with a nod to misogynistic behaviour and less oblique references to prejudice and inclusion. It is a fine line to tread and though, personally, a lot of the subtext of certain scenes resonated, I am not sure they would be seen as much more than comic relief to the masses.
As a fan of McCarthy, I will pretty much watch anything she appears in. She is probably my favourite comedic actor and generally delivers. In The Happytime Murders, however, as competent as she is, as is all the cast and talent, it is a film that is maybe a little to niche to work. Unlike animations in say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we know what a puppet feels like.
Ultimately, it is difficult to suspend disbelief enough to make the murderous aspects of the plot work, especially as the remnants of any crime scene were fluff and strands of coloured cotton. The Happytime Murders may give you a mildly amusing time but only if the muppets held a special place in your heart. For anyone else, you can probably give it a miss.