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‘The Happytime Murders’: This is what we call a depressing puppet show

A detective (Melissa McCarthy) teams up with her former partner, a puppet (voice of Bill Barretta), in "The Happytime Murders." | STXfilms

When the hard-R puppet action comedy “The Happytime Murders” mercifully draws to a close after about 80 minutes of depressingly unfunny shtick, we’re “treated” to a blooper reel featuring the actors and those operating the puppets.

The puppeteers are often clad in green bodysuits, so they’ll be rendered invisible by the green-screen special effects process. We see them manipulating this puppet to stimulate sexual intercourse, that puppet to expose its puppet genitals. At one point they spray a Silly String type substance all about, to — well, perhaps you can guess. (Or perhaps you’d rather not even try, and I wouldn’t blame you.)

Somehow, this blooper reel is even more of a downer than the actual movie. Watching these puppeteers gamely plying their trade, one is reminded of that old joke about the man cleaning up the elephant dung at the circus — the joke with the punch line: “What? And give up show business?”

From “Meet the Feebles” to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” to “Space Jam” to the “Ted” movies, the concept of humans sharing a universe with animated creatures or puppets is hardly original. But given the credentials of those involved with “The Happytime Murders,” there was reason to hope they might deliver something fresh and hilarious and wonderfully un-P.C.

After all, Brian Henson (son of and collaborator with “Muppets” legend Jim Henson) is the director, and just take a look at the cast: comedic stalwarts Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Elizabeth Banks, Joel McHale — and even Stanley from “Office,” aka Leslie David Baker.

OK, “The Happytime Murders,” let’s see what you’ve got!

Hope began to die about five minutes into this off-putting, cheap-looking, virtually laugh-free disaster.

Hope was dead at the 10-minute mark.

Somehow, “The Happytime Murders” manages to commit two major cinematic crimes.

The first half of the movie is dominated by gross-out sex gags — e.g., an octopus satisfying a cow, a puppet Dalmatian dominatrix with a human firefighter, and I’ll stop there — and a series of murders where puppet characters are torn apart or have their fluffy heads blown off.

And then, as if the filmmakers realized these dopey, clumsily staged bits carried none of the shock value of, say, the brutally graphic but often quite funny routines in “Team America: World Police,” the focus shifts to a detective movie plot straight out of a 1980s buddy-cop movie, complete with an easy-to-solve mystery, a pompous FBI agent muscling in on the local police, and a climactic scene that echoes a life-changing tragedy from the past.


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Even if some of the characters are puppets, it’s not really a parody if you’re just going through the motions and relying on open-mic-night-level jokes such as having a good guy saying to a jerk, “A—– says what?” and the jerk responding, “What?”

Our story is set in a parallel universe Los Angeles, where humans co-exist with (and barely tolerate) puppets, who are regarded as second-class citizens at best. (Don’t expect anything approaching real-world parallel social commentary humor.)

Bill Barretta does a nice job voicing the rumpled, world-weary puppet (literally) Phil Phillips, a former L.A. detective who was stripped of his badge after a shooting gone wrong and is now working as a downscale private detective. Melissa McCarthy is his human former partner, Connie, still nursing a grudge after that incident, which took place either 20 years ago or 12 years ago.

(One moment, we’re told it happened 20 years ago. A couple of scenes later, we’re told it was 12 years ago. Even in a tasteless, throwaway, hard-R puppet comedy, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for a little consistency.)

Due to circumstances you couldn’t possibly care about, Phil and Connie are once partnered together and tasked with finding out who is killing the former cast members (most of them puppets) of a popular show from the 1990s called “The Happytime Gang.”

There. There’s your story. There’s the framework for a movie that starts off with a rapid-fire series of shock gags, and devolves into a stupid action film where McCarthy’s character is routinely mistaken for a man (gee, that’s hilarious) and wonderful actors such as Maya Rudolph are left to flounder about with little to do or say, and we just keep hoping the filmmakers will cut this thing short, and they do, and we thank them for that.

‘The Happytime Murders’

Zero stars

STXfilms presents a film directed by Brian Henson and written by Todd Berger. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material). Running time: 91 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.