It's no Avengers: Infinity War, but The Happytime Murders has somehow turned out to be one of the most anticipated movies of 2018, if only because it seemed to have two options: Win big, or fail even bigger.
The film marks the first mainstream appearance of Brian Henson's Miskreant Puppets, and the first major motion picture produced in part by Henson Alternative, the adult production and distribution arm of the Jim Henson Company. Those facts, along with its all-star cast including Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks and Bill Barretta, makes The Happytime Murders the first high-profile adult puppet film from the most recognizable names in the industry. Those who wondered whether 90-minutes of puppet doing drugs and sex jokes and potentially sullying a beloved brand in a highly visible way could work can rest easy -- The Happytime Murders might not be great, but it is very, very good.
The premise is reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but in a way that evokes fond nostalgia rather than being a direct derivative. A series of murders targeting puppets attracts the attention of the LAPD, along with a washed up former puppet-cop-turned-private-detective named Phil Phillips. He left the police force in disgrace after failing to shoot a puppet holding his partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy) hostage. He missed, hitting an innocent puppet bystander and the criminal escaped, after seriously wounding Edwards. Phillips' failure sparked rumors amidst a society already mistrustful of puppets that he missed on purpose, so the city enacts legislation in response that forbids puppets from serving on the police force from there on out. It also resulted in his wounded partner getting a puppet liver transplant, a running gag that never ceases to pay off.
The film takes place about 15 years later, when Edwards and Phillips are reunited to solve a series of murders involving cast members of an 80s puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang. Phillips' brother was one of the stars, so both Phillips' and Edwards have a personal connection to everyone involved. There's till considerable animosity between the two, but they still work well together and the LAPD sanctions their limited partnership under the circumstances.
It's the establishment of the above that makes for the movie's weakest moments. The first quarter or so dedicates itself not only to setting up Phillips' history, but also to setting up a puppet/racism metaphor that's only marginally better executed than the orc/human/elf hierarchy in Netflix's troubled Bright. Puppets are marginalized members of society, but there's no backstory as to why other than that they are visibly different species (who can exchange organs). Phillips stops human kids from bullying a puppet street performer and then tells the busker, "[they] don't have to do that anymore" referring to the song and dance routine. If you work hard enough, you can imagine a history in which puppets were developed/bred/sewn for entertainment and then eventually won their freedom, but if that was truly the case, we could've used one more scene to shore it up.
There's also a dearth of jokes in the first act, as The Happytime Murders focuses more on the pathos of Phil's life and the decline of The Happytime Gang. That, combined with relatively weak world-building, make for a sluggish and imbalanced introduction. Luckily, once Phillips and Edwards actively start their investigation, both the pace and the humor pick up considerably and the film starts to cohere into something G*dd*mn delightful.