“The Happytime Murders” is the first film by Henson Alternative, a branch of the Jim Henson Co. that specializes in muppety, puppety stuff kids maybe shouldn’t watch. (That is, unless you’re the type of kid who gets a laugh out of a giant puppet octopus projectile-milking a puppet cow on the set of a gnarly puppet porno, in which case, knock yourself out.) Henson’s kids Brian and Jane run the Jim Henson Co. (one of them, Brian Henson, directs “Happytime”), and for all the sheltered kiddie memories you associate with “Sesame Street,” the maestro himself always harbored a blue streak. He once pranked a British producer into believing he wanted to cast an all-puppet X-rated flick called “Animal Farm” — admit it, your imagination just went berserk — and in the mid-’70s submitted a “Muppet Show” pilot to ABC titled “Sex and Violence.”
Welp, “The Happytime Murders” is sex and violence. It turned off critics and audiences who might have a tough time watching puppets, say, shoot one another in the face with shotguns, or get their faces torn apart piece by piece, or offer sex in exchange for drugs (well, technically, for sugar, which puppets abuse like cocaine). And it turned off people who might have wanted their hard-boiled detective story to have a few more twists across 90 swift, vulgar minutes. Ignore these people. “The Happytime Murders” may indeed be trash, but it’s gleeful, hilarious trash that has been shined to a high gloss by actual Hensons.
Picture a Raymond Chandler novel decked in blue fuzz and googly eyes, and you’re on the right track. Phil is a puppet ex-cop turned private eye working in a Los Angeles where puppets live among people as second-class citizens: Think shades of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” He gets a job from a slinky puppet named Sandra, who’s afraid of being blackmailed for her various sexcapades. During that investigation, he notices that someone is killing the puppet stars of a classic TV show, “The Happytime Gang,” who all stand to make bank now that they’re in syndication. (His brother is among them, ravaged like a cheap toy by a pack of dogs. If the sight of fresh stuffing makes you squeamish, this may not be the film for you.)
The cops take notice. Connie, our man’s former partner, arrives on the scene, still nursing some bad blood from a bad bust that left them both with scars. She’s played by Melissa McCarthy, who’s a dervish even when she’s not getting paid, like, $10 million to snort piles of glittery-purple street-grade puppet sugar. Suffice it to say McCarthy’s mode here is not one of overabundant restraint. If you’ve seen a funnier performance this year than McCarthy, hopped up on sugar, trying to answer her boss’s questions without giving away how high she is, then you’ve definitely been watching more movies than I have. You also get Maya Rudolph as Phil’s secretary, and Elizabeth Banks as a stripper Phil crushes on.
At a certain point, you’re surely wondering: Do jokes about puppet humping, puppet dismemberment and puppet drug abuse get tiresome? The answer is no, actually: You’ve been waiting for this mayhem since you first realized you’d like to throw a Tickle Me Elmo under a moving train. Jim Henson, that old salt, would’ve busted a gut.