The term gimmick has a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to. Gimmicks can work. When a gimmick is implemented appropriately it turns into creativity and fresh ideas. The key to making a gimmick work, I would argue, is it can’t be the crux of your idea, it has to be the twist. If everything you do is dependent on the gimmick then it is nothing more than the negative connotation is correct, but if the gimmick is the thing that changes your work then it can reinvent it and make cliche things seem fresh and new.
Happytime Murders is a gimmick film. Apply the negative connotation.
The Happytime Murders
Director: Brian Henson
Release Date: August 24, 2018
The gimmick in The Happytime Murders is, obviously, puppets in the real world doing adult things and saying adult words. The movie sets up a world where puppets are sentient beings living amongst us as second class citizens. Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta) is a puppet P.I. who use to be the first puppet cop, but after a hostage situation gone wrong involving his partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) he’s kicked off the force and a law outlawing puppets as cops is passed. Then a puppet femme fatale enters his office, the cast of classic TV show Happytime starts dying and a full-blown puppet-noir begins playing out.
The problem is that puppets cursing and screwing is almost the entire punchline. That’s the entire joke. Sometimes it’s funny to see puppets in sexual acts or an octopus milking a cow for a porn video, but that can’t be your entire schtick and The Happytime Murders falls into it far too often.
There are hints of what the movie could be if it wasn’t so obsessed with doing adult things with puppets — a predilection so prevalent that one wonders about the effects growing up as Jim Henson’s son had on director Brian Henson. The movie wants to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — a classic noir with a comedic twist. That movie finds its humor from playing it straight, establishing an animated gimmick into a world that works without it. Happytime Murders never stops throwing punchlines long enough to figure out what a straight face would look like.
The concept of puppets as a downtrodden minority has legs, and every so often, when the movie does take a second to stop smattering the screen in puppet semen you could see the dark humor that could have been delivered. Sadly, each time you think it might do something interesting with the concept it veers into another puppet site gag that generates nothing more than a smirk. By the time a puppet parody of the infamous Basic Instinct scene rolls around its more painful to watch than it is funny. The movie has multiple chances to play with both noir and Muppet tropes and creatively pull laughs, but always reverts back to the idea that puppets doing adult things is just funny on its own.
McCarthy is in decent form, and thanks to the technical wizardry of Henson and his team of puppeteers she actually has some chemistry with her felt co-star. The two bantering back and forth is some of the only truly funny dialog and a lot of it feels improved, a feat you couldn’t accomplish as well with CGI in the car. That relationship is never really allowed to move anywhere, though, as the film jumps from puppet murder to puppet murder in the misguided belief that fluffy puppet violence is funny over and over again. If the movie had just played it straight a bit more it could have been the noir it wanted to be instead of a series of gags that get increasingly less funny.
There was a chance for this film to work, maybe even as a Netflix series or something, but the movie is just too stuffed with needless fluff (pardon the pun), that it can’t ever get to anything interesting. It plays at the corners of creativity, but eventually just settles into nothing more than crassness. The Happytime Murders is a gimmick film in the worst sense of the word.