Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders has received as subjective and divisive a reaction as one might expect from a somewhat crass comedy upon its release this week. But one thing that has been almost universally acknowledged amongst the swathes of reviews is just how lovely it is to see a Henson puppet movie again.
These fuzzy felt creations are far from the sweet Sesame Street characters we grew up on – and the less said about the comparisons, the safer the film’s lawyers feel – and as more mature as their Muppets bedfellows may be, they are not a neatly sewn patch on their sweary Happytime counterparts, mixed with a live cast that includes comedy actor Melissa McCarthy.
If you too have suddenly developed a love for all things soft and not-so-cuddly, here are five other puppet-properties to seek out, from film and TV, to literature and the stage.
Film: Team America (2004)
It’s quite legitimate to claim that The Happytime Murders would not have been possible had it not been for South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker bumping two naked puppets into each other to the soft gentle power ballad harmonies of ‘Only a Woman’. The pair pledged to never work with puppets again once filming wrapped, but at least we’ll always have Team America.
The story follows Broadway actor Gary Johnston after he is recruited by the “world police” counter-terrorism organisation Team America to take down a terrorist threat linked to Hollywood celebrities and North Korea. The musical-satire ridiculed both then North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the way America saw itself in a post-9/11 world. It is gross, over-the-top and hilarious. And the puppet work is incredibly impressive, considering.
Television: Yonderland (2013-16)
Not quite as [dramatic pause] mature as The Happytime Murders, nor the aforementioned Team America, yet Yonderland took us to a familiar Henson-inspired fantasy realm and made it more grown up. The series follows Debbie Maddox (Martha Howe-Douglas) as a mum in the West Midlands whose unlikely secret identity is the fated Chosen One in the mysterious magical land populated with weird and wonderful characters, accessed through her pantry.
The Sky original series was created by Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Mathew Baynton, Jim Howick and Martha Howe-Douglas (aka them lot from kids’ sketch series Horrible Histories). It combines the humour that made them so well loved with some imaginative fantasy elements rarely seen outside of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones – only on an infinitesimally smaller scale, with less dramatic verve, and with (beautifully crafted, albeit funny-looking) puppets.
Live: Avenue Q (2003-present)
Songs such as “The Internet Is For Porn” and “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” certainly help to establish that this live puppet show is aimed at a slightly older audience than the young Punch and Judy crowd, but plenty of visual gags also litter the TONY award winning musical. Even as somebody who typically finds musicals incredibly tedious, the outrageousness of Avenue Q still kept me entertained – and the songs are pretty good, to be fair!
Avenue Q’s story follows Princeton as he tries to figure out his purpose in life from his crappy apartment in a run-down New York avenue, surrounded by bizarre and sometimes frighteningly realistic characters. The touring production may be on a short break but returns to the UK in January.
Comics: Jim Henson’s The Power of the Dark Crystal (2017-18)
Alright, it’s slightly cheating because of course these characters aren’t puppets but are illustrations. However, writer Si Spurrier and artists Kelly and Nichole Matthews brilliantly continue the story of Jim Henson’s wonderfully realised otherworldly battle between the elf-like Gelflings and their soul-sucking rulers, the Skeksis.
In 12 issues, we return to the adventure years into the future. The fireling Mithra seeks to prevent the destruction of her own world at the expense of the surface dwelling Gelflings, who have risen to rule in place of the banished Skeksis; and who have become equally as corrupt with power as their former tormentors. The original 1982 high-fantasy movie was dark, frightening and not exactly the family-friendly story it purported to be. So too does the comic follow-up delve into highly complex themes – albeit in a slightly less mentally-scarring way.
Left-field pick: Anomalisa (2015)
If puppet sex is your thing, then by all means watch Team America and laugh until you’re blue in the face; and then watch Charlie Kaufman’s heart-wrenching stop-motion animation and feel a whole new range of emotions about a scene like that. David Thewlis breathes life into the desperately sad Michael Stone as he searches for something to break the mundanity of his life whilst on a business trip in a hotel. There, he meets fan Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is literally the only other character in the entire film to be voiced by someone other than Tom Noonan.
A barrel of laughs, it ain’t. But incredible, it is. It’s a left-field choice for this list, not because of its quality, but purely because if there’s any humour to be found here then it is in the tragedy and (bleakly) the relatability of certain scenes, such as telling a shower to fuck off. It may not be anything at all like The Happytime Murders, but Anomalisa is an absolute feat of ingenuity, mind-boggling patience and extraordinary accomplishment to make something so unreal seem so human.