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" He’ll engage in some acrobatic insanity rather than harm a hair on a guard’s head. "
— Dougray Scott, Mission: Impossible 2

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Mouse Detective

Basil of Baker Street finds a new DVD release. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

Basil is a Great Mouse Detective

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This turkey’s all stuffing and no meat.

Henson Alternative (!)

This Muppet movie isn't for children
This Muppet movie isn’t for children

Yep. That’s right. It’s finally happened. An R-rated Muppet movie released under the “Henson Alternative” shingle. It’s doubtful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and father of director Brian Henson, would have much reason to be proud of anything on display here.

The possibilities are right there. Satire. Social commentary. Shock value.

The movie offers the latter in spades. But anything else? Nope. It’s all about the shock value.

How “shocking” is it? In one unbearably over-the-top scene, a Muppet, a private investigator named Phil Philips (longtime Muppeteer Bill Barretta), fornicates on his office desk with a hot-to-trot female puppet client who describes herself as a “sexual Ima.” What that means won’t be explained here. It’s not worth the pixels. But, nonetheless, the scene involves an orgasm of puppet proportions.

Certainly, these are things never done before with puppets — at least not on the big screen, by allegedly professional filmmakers. But some things can be safely left undone.

Shock value has its place. Shock value has its value.

But when all a movie has is shock value, it quickly devolves into junk.

Felt and Filth (!)

There is a story lurking at the bottom of this miscarriage of puppetry. The setting is Los Angeles and the tone is old-school gumshoe detective work. Puppets and humans live in a world of uneasy coexistence; life gets difficult for Phil as the cast of a popular puppet show is killed off one-by-one and he becomes a leading suspect. The show is The Happytime Gang, the first TV show with puppets to be accepted and embraced by the general public.

Hmmm. There’s some identity politics to mine there. And the movie takes mild stabs at societal issues such as racism, stereotypes, bullying and discrimination in its opening frames, but the bulk of the movie isn’t focused on anything remotely meaningful.

Instead, F-bombs and sexual references — even puppet nudity — splat onto the screen. Within the first few minutes, Phil walks into a puppet porn shop where the backroom action includes a squid milking a cow and a Dalmatian whipping a tied-up, masochistic (human) firefighter.

Eventually, Melissa McCarthy enters the picture as Detective Connie Edwards. McCarthy’s career has been on a roll — downhill — since 2014’s The Heat. Ghostbusters was a creative exception, but a commercial disappointment. The Happytime Murders is anything but a course correction.

Anyway, Edwards and Philips have history. They were a team when Phil was a member of the LAPD. But a tragic incident involving a dangerous puppet holding Connie with a gun to her head and an errant bullet from Phil’s gun sent their lives and relationship into a downward spiral. That incident is the movie’s strongest point. But the movie makes zero effort whatsoever to create any degree of tension — or to craft an interest in puzzling out who committed the crimes.

Make Muppets Great Again (?)

Only weeks ago, Christopher Robin presented the fantasy world of Winnie the Pooh and friends; technically-superb, it struggled with landing its message. It was a little too somber for its own good, but at least it had a message and loads of good intentions. Plus, watching Pooh and the gang in a real-world environment was fun.

In contrast, The Happytime Murders is one unhappy moviegoing experience. With this “adult” puppet movie, the fun is dead on arrival.

The original Muppet Show and even the more recent big-screen escapades of The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted were all about lightheartedness and goodwill. And, as a result, loads and loads of A-list stars wanted to join in on the antics.

With this stinker, it’s strictly B-list territory, particularly given McCarthy’s dimming star power. The “special guests” in this one are Joel McHale, Maya Rudolph and Elizabeth Banks. Ho-hum. Big deal.

What’s sad is — much like those opening frames — the end credits reveal more of what could’ve been. As the credits roll, the background is filled with imagery. Get past all the sleazy puppet porn video posters and there are other themes that appear: “Puppet Power,” “Felt Is Beautiful,” “Protect Our Rights” and, of course, “Just Say ‘No’ to Sugar.”

If only this exercise in pushing puppet boundaries had the guts to push those boundaries with some substance.