Yes, they’re plushy, and yes, they’re creations of the Jim Henson Company, but the puppets of The Happytime Murders, new in theaters this week, are decidedly not child-friendly. In case the trailers didn’t make that plainly clear — or in case you missed the trailers altogether — Christy Lemire offers up a last warning before you head to theaters unaware, and then presents a handful of alternatives you can watch at home instead, if you choose.
Rating: R, for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material.
They may look like the puppets your kids see on Sesame Street, made of colorful felt with sweet faces and kind, googly eyes. But be warned: The characters in The Happytime Murders aren’t here to teach your kids their ABCs and 1-2-3s. They’re too busy having sex, doing drugs, drinking in hot tubs and starring in porn videos – and they’re brought to you by the letter F, over and over again. That’s the gimmick in this extremely hard-R comedy: Seemingly wholesome characters take part in unspeakably unwholesome activities. It’s a vaguely amusing idea and not much more. The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie, and that joke gets beaten into the ground (as do several characters, people and puppet alike). Among the human actors in this raunchy film-noir send-up are Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks, all of whom are game for anything. Director Brian Henson – son of the late puppet master Jim Henson – and his team certainly get the opportunity to show off their technical prowess. If only they were working from a more clever script. Following Team America: World Police, Meet the Feebles, and Broadway’s Avenue Q, we’ve seen the naughty-puppet thing done before, and much better. Anyway, keep the kids away. You may want to stay away, too.
There are, however, plenty of family-friendly puppet movies you all can watch together. Here are a few suggestions:
A beloved classic, and a movie that’s near and dear to the hearts of anyone who grew up in the 1970s. The big-screen version of TV’s The Muppet Show – created by the late, great Jim Henson — finds Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and the gang enjoying a cross-country road trip to Hollywood to pursue dreams of stardom. But Kermit also becomes the target of a restaurant owner who thinks he’d be the perfect marketing tool to help him sell frog legs. The antics are gently humorous and the comedy is of the wholesome, slapstick nature. The songs, including Rainbow Connection and Movin’ Right Along, are insanely catchy and will be stuck in your head for days afterward. And while there are some villainous figures, they’re pretty ridiculous. This one’s a charmer, and a great choice for the whole family.
Rating: PG, for some mild rude humor.
The Muppets return in top form in this lively, sweet comedy. It finds the world’s biggest Muppet fan (a puppet voiced by Peter Linz) and his human companions (Jason Segel and Amy Adams) crisscrossing the country to gather the gang to stop a greedy oilman – whose name is literally Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) — from tearing down the historic Muppets studio. Of course, the only way to do that is to put on a show, which harkens to the goofy, infectious spirit of the original television variety program. As in the first Muppet Movie, this family-friendly adventure has plenty of upbeat music and physical antics. But there’s also a minor brawl and a few insults tossed around. And of course, we see a bit of romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy. But overall this is by far one of the stronger movies in the Muppet Cinematic Universe, and an excellent choice for all ages.
Rating: PG, for adult situations/language, violence.
The rules sound pretty simple. Don’t expose them to bright light, don’t get them wet, and don’t feed them after midnight. That’s all you need to do to care for your adorable, cuddly new friend. But things go horribly, thrillingly wrong in this ‘80s classic that spawned a mania for all things Gizmo. The cute creature that turns monstrous when mishandled is the product of puppetry: the soft fur, the mischievous smile, the buggy eyes and – later – the maniacal grin. Joe Dante’s film is a lot of fun, and it may seem like it’s appropriate for young kids at the outset because of the Mogwai’s appealing appearance. But eventually, it turns violent as Gizmo spawns multiple offspring, who mutate and become hell-bent on wreaking havoc. Out of sheer survival instinct, the humans’ response is just as intense, and there is (understandably) quite a bit of language scattered throughout. Although Gremlins is rated PG, it’s one of the movies that inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, and it might be a bit much for the youngest viewers. But I’d say it’s fine for kids around 10 and older.