The Happytime Murders is a 2018 American black comedy mystery crime film directed by Brian Henson and written by Todd Berger. The film stars Melissa McCarthy, Bill Barretta, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Leslie David Baker, and Elizabeth Banks. Set in a world where puppets and humans co-exist, the film follows a puppet and human joint police force who must solve a recent murder spree of retired sitcom stars.
The film was first announced in 2008 by The Jim Henson Company, the production studio of Muppets creator Jim Henson. Various actors, including Cameron Diaz, Katherine Heigl and Jamie Foxx, were approached to star before McCarthy signed on in May 2017. Filming began in Los Angeles that September, and involved the use of over 120 puppets. The Happytime Murders was the first film released by Henson Alternative, a banner of The Jim Henson Company that specializes in adult-oriented content.
The Happytime Murders was released on August 24, 2018, by STXfilms. It received mostly negative reviews from critics and was a box-office bomb, grossing only $27.5 million worldwide against a $40–47 million budget. The film received six nominations at the 39th Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture and Worst Actress for McCarthy, who won the latter award.
In a world where puppets coexist with humans but are treated as second-class citizens, Phil Phillips was the first puppet cop on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) before being fired. Now a private detective with a human secretary Bubbles, he is hired by puppet client Sandra to find out who has been blackmailing her. Phil investigates a lead at a puppet-owned porn shop. While he checks their records in the back, an attacker kills everyone else present including Mr. Bumblypants, a cast member of the beloved puppet television sitcom The Happytime Gang that was due to go into syndication.
The LAPD arrives and Phil meets with his former partner Detective Connie Edwards. Twelve years prior, Edwards was being held at gunpoint by a puppet perpetrator. Phil tried to shoot him, but missed and hit an innocent puppet killing him in front of the puppet's young daughter. Edwards testified against Phil and a law was enacted preventing puppets from being cops. In the present, Edwards believes it was a robbery gone wrong. Phil shows it was murder, since no money was taken. That night, Phil’s brother Larry "Shenanigans" Phillips, a former Happytime Gang cast-member, is torn apart when someone lets dogs into his house. Phil reluctantly joins forces with Edwards to find the killer.
The two track down former Happytime Gang cast-member Lyle only for him to be killed in a drive-by shooting in front of Phil. Phil goes to see Jenny, the only human Happytime Gang cast-member and his former girlfriend, at a puppet strip club where she works. Phil is unable to protect her when her car explodes. The police see Phil leaving the scene and believe him to be responsible for the murders.
Phil hides out at Edwards' apartment and they discover that former Happytime Gang member Goofer has apparently overdosed and drowned. They go to the house of the two remaining Happytime Gang members, Ezra and Cara only to find their mangled bodies. The FBI arrives and detains Phil and Edwards. Phil is shown Sandra in an interrogation room. She reveals that she and Jenny are married and claims Phil killed Jenny and the others to keep Sandra for himself.
Edwards is suspended from duty and enlists Bubbles to ask for help proving Phil's innocence. They break into Sandra's home and discover a hidden room containing plans for the deaths of the Happytime Gang stars and a conspiracy against Phil. Edwards notices a picture of the puppet Phil accidentally shot years ago, and realizes that Sandra is his daughter and out for revenge against Phil. Bubbles sees a tape recorder and presses the play button, which ignites a fire destroying all the evidence. Edwards breaks Phil out of jail to stop Sandra.
Phil and Edwards race to the airport, where Sandra is planning to escape with all the royalty money. Phil apologizes for killing her father, saying it has haunted him all the years since and asks why the Happytime Gang stars had to die. Sandra says she wanted Phil to suffer as payback. It is revealed that Jenny is alive, having faked her death, and is in cahoots with Sandra, but Sandra knocks Jenny out to take the money for herself after Phil reveals her true history. Sandra holds Edwards at gunpoint, putting her and Phil in the same position as twelve years before. Phil takes his shot and does not miss this time, killing Sandra.
Edwards' police superior Banning arrives to congratulate Phil and Edwards on cracking the case. He restores Edwards to active duty and convinces the mayor to lift the ban on puppet cops, welcoming Phil back on the force. Phil asks Bubbles out on a date, which she accepts.
- Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards, Phil’s ex-partner.
- Maya Rudolph as Bubbles, Phil’s optimistic, upbeat and kind secretary.
- Joel McHale as Special Agent Campbell, a stern and arrogant FBI agent.
- Elizabeth Banks as Jenny Peterson, a burlesque dancer and Phil's ex-girlfriend, who was the sole human member of The Happytime Gang.
- Leslie David Baker as Lt. Banning, Edwards' police superior.
- Michael McDonald as Ronovan Scargle, the CEO of the Puppet Television Network which produced The Happytime Gang.
- Cynthy Wu as Brittany Marlowe, Larry Phillips' girlfriend.
- Mitch Silpa as Tommy, a criminal who sells puppet parts on the black market.
- Hemky Madera as Tito, a criminal who purchases puppet parts on the black market.
- Jimmy O. Yang as Officer Delancey, a police officer.
- Ryan Gaul as Officer Milligan, a police officer.
- Fortune Feimster as Robin, a weed dealer and a longtime fan of The Happytime Gang.
- Ben Falcone as Donny, an LAPD desk worker.
- Bill Barretta as Phil Phillips, a disgraced ex-cop who is now a private investigator. He was the first puppet to become a police officer, but was fired from the force after accidentally killing Sandra's father.
- Dorien Davies as Sandra White (née Jakoby), a puppet who hires Phil to investigate a case for her while having a secret vengeful motive against him.
- Kevin Clash as Lyle, an actor on The Happytime Gang who played a sports coach and is now a drug lord.
- Drew Massey as Goofer, an actor on The Happytime Gang who played a handyman, and is now homeless and addicted to sugar, which is like heroin to puppets.
- Ted Michaels as Ezra, an actor on The Happytime Gang and Cara’s cousin.
- Michaels also performs a sexist thug that works for Lyle.
- Colleen Smith as Cara, an actress on The Happytime Gang and Ezra’s cousin.
- Smith also performs a Dalmatian at Vinny's porn shop
- Smith also performs Carol
- Alice Dinnean and Donna Kimball as Sheila and Diane (the "Rotten Cotton Girls"), a duo of puppet prostitutes and strippers.
- Kimball also performs an unnamed cow at Vinny's porn shop.
- Kimball also performs Roxy.
- Brian Henson as a crab in a trash can.
- Allan Trautman as an octopus at Vinny's porn shop.
- Trautman also performs the reluctant puppet doctor that operated on Connie.
- Victor Yerrid as Larry "Shenanigans" Phillips, Phil's older brother and an actor on The Happytime Gang who played a police officer, and in the present, he has since had his blue skin bleached and underwent a nose job.
- Yerrid also performs an old man outside of Phil's private office, who loves singing and dancing.
In addition, Henson makes an on-screen cameo in a photograph in Connie's apartment.
- Patty Gugenheim as Roxy
- Damon Jones as Puppet Doctor
Announced in 2008 as being in development at The Jim Henson Company, serving as the company's first film to receive an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, the film was picked up two years later by Lionsgate with a targeted January 2011 start date. At the time, Cameron Diaz had been offered a lead role in the film. Diaz dropped out and Katherine Heigl entered into talks to replace her.
In July 2015, it was announced that STX Entertainment had picked up the film rights to The Happytime Murders (Lionsgate having lost them) and put the film in active development, with script revisions by Erich and Jon Hoeber. In April 2016, Jamie Foxx entered negotiations to star in the film. In May 2017, it was revealed that Melissa McCarthy had signed on to star in the film instead, as well as to contribute minor, uncredited rewrites to the film's screenplay. This was followed by Maya Rudolph being added in August, and in September, Elizabeth Banks, all officially joined the cast.
Principal photography on the film began in Los Angeles, California on September 11, 2017. The film had a production budget in the range of $40–47 million, with McCarthy getting paid between $10–17.5 million.
There were a total of 125 puppets in the film with 40 created specifically for it. To accommodate the puppeteers, all of the sets were built up so that the puppeteers could stand on the floor, since their optimum way to operate the puppets is if they are standing with straight arms. Because the floor of the sets came up in pieces, the human actors had a two-foot margin to stay on their path. Visual effects supervisor Sam Nicholson said the film had many VFX challenges, specifying, "It’s some of the most complex work that we’ve ever done because, in one shot you could have a combination of principal photography done at 8K and then puppets on greenscreen being puppeteered by four puppeteers for each puppet. So if you have, say, six puppets in a scene, you’ve got 24 puppeteers operating them, and these are all people dressed in green suits. And then you have all the rod removal of those puppets, and then you have avatars or CG puppets that are standing right next to the real puppets."
The Happytime Murders was released to cinemas by STX Entertainment on August 24, 2018.
The Happytime Murders was released on Digital HD on November 20, 2018 and on DVD and Blu-ray on December 4, 2018. by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
The Happytime Murders has grossed $20.7 million in the United States and Canada, and $6.8 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $27.5 million, against a production budget of around $40 million.
In the United States and Canada, The Happytime Murders was released alongside A.X.L., and was projected to gross $13–15 million from 3,225 theaters in its opening weekend. The film grossed $950,000 from Thursday night previews, better than the $700,000 made by McCarthy's Life of the Party three months prior. It went on to debut to $9.5 million, marking the lowest opening of McCarthy's career as a lead. It fell 54% in its second weekend to $4.4 million, finishing eighth.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 23% based on 236 reviews, with an average rating of 3.86/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Happytime Murders wastes its intriguingly transgressive premise on a witless comedy that blindly pushes buttons instead of attempting to tell an entertaining story. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C–" on an A+ to F scale, the lowest of McCarthy's career as a lead, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it an "awful" 58% overall positive score.
Jess Fenton for Switch wrote "... I adored the concept, I loved the cast, the fact that this was directed by Jim Henson’s son made me giddy, and yet... I did not like this movie. Hate is too strong a word, however I was deeply disappointed, underwhelmed, my sides were left unsplit."
Andrew Barker of Variety magazine wrote: "It should come as no surprise that "Happytime" comes up farcically short as a metaphor for racism. But its most fatal miscalculation is the decision to frontload so many of its crassest setpieces into the first 15 or 20 minutes, depriving the rest of the film of the shock value that is its entire raison d'etre."
The film received a positive review from William Bibbiani at IGN, who wrote: "The Happytime Murders may not be a timeless classic on par with Roger Rabbit, but it’s more interesting and nuanced than its raunchy, violent humor suggests. The puppeteering is fantastic, the characters are interesting, and although the story isn’t ingenious the jokes are usually funny."
In May 2018, Sesame Workshop, the organization behind the production of the television series Sesame Street, filed a lawsuit against STX Productions for using their trademark in a film they have no involvement with, including the tagline "No Sesame, all Street". They alleged that associating a children’s program with an adult comedy would smear the former's reputation as well as confuse individuals. In response, STX issued a statement indicating their persistence to keep the marketing for the film unchanged. On May 30, 2018, the lawsuit was rejected by the presiding judge for the case, with STX issuing a brief statement soon thereafter
Some subsequent television spots for the film made references to the lawsuit by starting the ads with "From the studio that was sued by Sesame Street...".