Are We Finally Ready for Brian Henson’s Muppet Noir?

By  · Published on July 8th, 2015

The Jim Henson Co.

Muppets have never just been for kids, and they certainly didn’t originate as intended for children’s entertainment. Not exclusively anyway. But the same is true of the classic animation that wound up being called “cartoons” and thrown on Saturday mornings for the young’uns. So did Muppets and puppetry in general become synonymous with preschool programming, but now it’s time for the grown-ups to reclaim their felt-covered frogs and dogs and pigs and chickens and things. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Brian Henson (son of Jim and director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) may finally bring his dark Muppet project The Happytime Murders to the bring screen.

We first wrote on this movie, classified as a Muppet Noir, back in 2008, when The Jim Henson Co. picked up Todd Berger’s idea about a human detective partnered with a puppet investigating the murders of puppet cast members of an old children’s TV show (a la Sesame Street?). If that sounds like a Muppet version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, then good, because as I noted puppets and cartoon characters have a lot in common in the history of pop culture. Like the toons of that movie, the puppets in Happytime are viewed as second-class citizens. Much like in our own world, in a way.

In 2012, Katherine Heigl became attached and that must have killed the thing, because none of us want to see her as the Bob Hoskins equivalent. But I also think the world just wasn’t ready, maybe not even as recent as three years ago, for something like this (or a planned Avenue Q movie). Puppets for adults has always been a tough sell for the big screen, if only because it’s difficult to keep children from thinking it’s for them (or, really, parents from thinking it’s for their children). Ted might have proven that something like this could work and be kept from the kids, though it’s interesting that now Happytime is back in the news following the disappointing opening of Ted 2.

One thing going for something like Happytime (which is being retitled) now is that it will play to even more adults who grew up on the Muppets. The nostalgic, arrested-development adults whom Ted was metaphorically about. They who love superhero movies, especially when they’re not family friendly either. They who were all excited about the new Muppets movies until they turned out to be too family friendly. They for whom Happytime’s theme of killing childhood things will resonate metaphorically in an era where they think reboots and things are murdering their actual childhoods.

It could be the satire we need for this generation. Or it could wind up like the Watchmen movie, which did something similar but with superheroes. Perhaps Henson and new screenwriters Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber (Red and Red 2) shouldn’t aim to make this too dark, taking a lesson from the fun and smart Roger Rabbit instead. We’ve already got Meet the Feebles anyway.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.