As a lifelong Muppet fan, I root for anything the Jim Henson company turns its attention to, with or without the Muppets. Jim’s son Brian Henson directed this parody of hard-boiled film noir murder mysteries. Puppet characters interact with live actors like Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, and Elizabeth Banks. Someone is brutally murdering the stars of a 1980s TV kid show whose lives have gone sour, and no one knows why.

The production is attributed to HA!, which stands for Henson Alternative. You can’t say they didn’t warn us. The Happytime Murders is awash in sex (of all kinds), violence, and a truckload of four-letter words. At first the shock value delivers some laughs but it doesn’t take long for the whole concept to go flat.

It’s the ultimate “meta” movie because the puppets are completely aware that they are puppets, and are routinely abused by the humans they meet up with.

Muppet veteran Bill Baretta plays the cynical protagonist, a former LAPD detective who was busted from the force and now works as a private eye. Circumstance pairs him up with his former partner (McCarthy), who’s not happy about the reunion. They have a sad, frustrating history, which we learn about piece by piece. Screenplay credit goes to Todd Berger, working from a story he wrote with Dee Austin Robinson.

As you’d expect from any Henson enterprise, movie wizardry is on display in abundance; we even see how some seemingly simple visual-effects shots were accomplished during the closing credits. But that requires you to sit through a nearly-interminable 90 minutes, and it’s not worth the sacrifice.

There is nothing happy about The Happytime Murders, I regret to say, and that’s a real shame.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024