Is it possible to tarnish a puppet’s reputation? One of this year’s odder lawsuits suggested as much. In May, Sesame Workshop filed suit against STX Productions after the release of the trailer for The Happytime Murders, a new dark comedy featuring puppet characters who engage in activities you won’t see on Sesame Workshop’s beloved, long-running children’s program Sesame Street. The suit singled out the film’s tagline—“No Sesame. All Street.”—as particularly objectionable as it could confuse “consumers into mistakenly believing that Sesame is associated with, has allowed, or has even endorsed or produced the movie and tarnishes Sesame’s brand.”
The legal action didn’t get very far, but it’s not as if drawing on a resemblance to characters from Sesame Street and The Muppets is a minor part of The Happytime Murders’ premise. It’s essentially the entirety of the film’s premise. Directed by Brian Henson, son of Muppets creator Jim Henson and the chairman of the Jim Henson Co., the film is set in a noir-ish Los Angeles in which—shades of Who Framed Roger Rabbit—puppets have the status of second-class citizens. But really, the film ultimately argues, they’re just like us. That means they should be given equal treatment, sure, but it also means they kill, have sex, take drugs, and watch pornography. (So, so much puppet pornography.)
The Happytime Murders isn’t the first project to draw on the Muppets and Sesame Street to explore adult themes. Avenue Q won acclaim by putting a children’s show–inspired spin on the grown-up world, and Brian Henson’s live show Puppet Up! has found success combining Muppet-like characters, improv comedy, and blue humor. (Much of The Happytime Murders’ puppeteering cast has also been a part of Puppet Up!) But the promotion of the film has largely revolved around shock value, asking audiences to show up to see not quite Muppets behaving badly.
In this, it’s also not alone. New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his international breakthrough in 1992 with his third film, Dead Alive (aka Braindead), an over-the-top comedy seemingly designed to make Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies look tame by comparison. But just prior to that, Jackson directed the 1989 film Meet the Feebles, which presents the backstage happenings of a Muppet Show–like variety revue as a nightmarish swirl of vice, violence, and bodily fluids. (So, so many bodily fluids.)
Who tarnished the Muppets best? Let’s take a look.
The puppets in The Happytime Murders come from the Jim Henson Co., and as you might imagine, they look pretty great. Much of the film’s humor comes from the contrast between the sweet, familiar-looking little felt creatures and the often horrible things they do. Most of them could slip unnoticed into an episode of The Muppet Show, which means none of them are particularly disturbing on their own. (Though one poor puppet who’s had his felt lightened and nose reshaped to fit in better with humans is haunting in his own way.)
The puppets in Meet the Feebles look like they’ve been stitched together out of dirty socks and discarded couch cushions. That’s partly by design since Jackson is clearly going for a filthy aesthetic. And it’s partly because the craftsmanship needed to make truly Muppet-y Muppets has largely stayed a Henson family secret. For most of the puppets, Jackson and his crew don’t really try, leaning into the grotesquerie via characters like Heidi the Hippo, a gargantuan Miss Piggy analogue with gigantic, frequently exposed breasts, and Harry the Hare, who begins the film looking like a ragged child’s toy and ends it in a state of advanced decrepitude after he’s (incorrectly) diagnosed as suffering from a mysterious “sex disease.”
The Winner: Meet the Feebles. You could give a kid a toy version of Lyle, Happytime’s resident drug lord, or even Goofer, an addict who offers a sexual favor to Melissa McCarthy’s character, Detective Connie Edwards, without feeling bad about it. A toy version of most of the Meet the Feebles cast, on the other hand, would likely prompt a call to child protective services.
Speaking of drugs, both films are filled with characters hooked on various substances. There are no nonpuppet human characters in Meet the Feebles, but their drugs of choice are familiar to the human world, even if in one scene a character shoots up with what appears to be Pepto-Bismol.
Happytime Murders only half explains the rules of its world, but it goes into quite a bit of detail regarding puppet drug use. Rather than cocaine or heroin, the film’s puppets get hooked on sugar. And since McCarthy’s Detective Edwards has a puppet liver, she finds herself susceptible to the same vice, tossing back maple syrup, rubbing sugar on her gums, and in one especially notable scene, snorting a candy powder through a Twizzler.
While watching puppets jonesing for street drugs is unpleasant, it’s unpleasant in ways familiar from every movie about addiction. Seeing them freaking out over sugar, on the other hand, is unpleasant in a new way, one intensified by McCarthy joining the action.
The Winner: The Happytime Murders, which probably won’t send many viewers to the concession stand midfilm.
Sex is all over both Meet the Feebles and The Happytime Murders, both of which invest a lot in the notion that puppets doin’ it is inherently funny and/or disgusting. Happytime probably has the creative edge here. In an early scene, puppet private eye Phil Philips (performed by Bill Barretta) visits an adult bookstore where he witnesses a puppet cow being milked by an octopus (an apparent attempt to satisfy one of its world’s more fringe kinks) and a film in which a puppet Dalmatian dominates a flesh-and-blood human in a fireman costume. When Philips has sex with a femme fatale puppet named Sandra (Dorien Davies), he ejaculates what appears to be the contents of an entire canister of Silly String into every corner of his office.
But what Meet the Feebles lacks in creativity, it makes up for in volume thanks to a subplot involving Trevor the Rat, who lurks in the margins of the Feebles’ theater and, with Feebles mastermind Bletch the Walrus, runs a profitable sideline making pornographic films featuring some of the show’s supporting players. This leads to, among other moments, a scene involving an aardvark’s trunk and seemingly every part of an elephant. Other moments force viewers to contemplate the sexual mechanics needed for an alligator to have sex with a chicken (off screen) and a walrus to have sex with a cat (very much on screen, unfortunately).
The Winner: A puppet-y paradox worth pondering: Where the cuteness of the Happytime Murders’ drugs somehow makes them more disturbing, it makes the sex scenes less disturbing. But there’s nothing undisturbing about the way Feebles depicts what puppets do behind closed doors (and occasionally in front of the camera).
A noir parody, The Happytime Murders features deaths by explosion, dog (one of the film’s best gags—not that there’s that much competition—is that puppets fear dogs, which mistake them for squeaky toys), and gunfire. Violence comes in flashes, and it’s never particularly upsetting.
Jackson, however, fetishizes violence to a John Woo–esque degree, particularly when staging a climactic scene in which Heidi the Hippo loses her mind and guns down most of the cast. Also, there’s a torturously long parody of The Deer Hunter featuring cannibalism, Russian roulette, and some not-so-sensitively rendered Vietnamese puppets.
The Winner: Meet the Feebles, but for a full explanation we have to look to our final category.
Final Judgment (but Also, Bodily Fluids)
Though The Happytime Murders edges out Meet the Feebles when it comes to drugs, Feebles has taken every other category, making the winner pretty easy to pick. But there’s also an overarching reason why Meet the Feebles is more disturbing than The Happytime Murders: wetness. The puppets of The Happytime Murders pee glitter, and in one scene, a frightened rabbit drops a plastic Easter egg in a panic. When shot, they explode and leave behind only felt. Alive or dead, they don’t leave much of a mess. (Even Silly String isn’t that hard to clean up.)
The puppets of Meet the Feebles, on the other hand bleed, puke, poop … basically, if there’s a bodily fluid to emit, we see them emit it. Dry, the puppets look pretty gross. But the film makes us consider what they’re like wet, the texture of matted fur, the smell of puppet vomit caked onto felt skin. Similarly, The Happytime Murders’ most disgusting scene involves the wringing out of a puppet corpse that’s washed up on shore. Hence, we can arrive at a grand theory of how to make a truly disturbing film featuring Muppet-like characters: wet them down and let the nightmares begin.
The Winner: Meet the Feebles. But, while both Peter Jackson and Brian Henson have done wonderful work elsewhere, the real winner is everyone who manages to avoid watching both films.
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