'The Happytime Murders' makes a killing with delightfully vulgar puppetry (MOVIE REVIEW)

Phil on Film

There's something inherently hilarious about innocent kid's show motifs being twisted for vulgar and violent purposes.

"The Happytime Murders" takes the concept proven by the 2005-2006 cult hit TV show "Wonder Showzen" and the hit musical "Avenue Q." Add a dash of Melissa McCarthy and you have the formula for something magical.

It takes a special sort of performer to stay straight-faced when discussing serious matters with a bushy-eyebrowed hunk of fabric, but McCarthy goes a step beyond that by managing to treat her inanimate co-performers as sounding boards for her unique brand of comic insanity.

Set in a world in which humans and muppets live together in an uneasy truce, the film is a parody of a hard-boiled detective yarn. Bill Barretta voices detective Phil Philips, a Philip Marlowe type who takes cases from damsels in distress, flirts with his bubbly secretary (Maya Rudolph) and pounds the pavement to dig up and string together clues to crack cases.

Teaming with his old partner, played by McCarthy, the gumshoe seeks to solve a string of related puppet killings, borne out of a society plagued by casual racism toward his puppet brethren.

Ten years in the making, the comedy benefits from the full participation of Jim Henson Company. The puppeteers execute their craft with exquisite skill, and the artistry adds to the hypnotic effect of making the vulgarity seem all the more shocking.

The film's gags hit early, hard and often. The movie's first half hour is so exquisitely timed that it almost works to the rest of the movie's detriment, since it's nearly impossible to keep pace. Director Brian Henson -- son of the legendary Jim -- manages to maintain the pace and momentum without allowing the laughs to dwindle away at the expense of the storytelling.

Joel McHale makes a stark, if subdued impression as a befuddled FBI agent, and Elizabeth Banks delivers a flashy performance as an actress who co-starred in a show featuring many of the murder victims.

The humor draws as many exasperated gasps as it does belly laughs. The depths to which the writers are willing to sink to shock the audience know no bottom. Those who adore the likes of "South Park" and "Family Guy" will feel right at home.

Not a movie for the easily offended, or even those who fashion themselves mature and are proud of the fact, "The Happytime Murders" plays to the type of viewer who find that the more inappropriate, demented and just plain wrong a joke is, the more likely it is to leave them in stitches.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.

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