With a cringe-worthy trailer and a 22% Rotten Tomatoes score, I don’t suppose a ton of people are seeing The Happytime Murders, which parodies children’s shows with its raunchy murder-mystery story and Sesame Street-inspired characters. But whether you are or aren’t interested in this R-rated take on the Muppets — which was actually originally set up at The Jim Henson Company and is directed by Jim Henson’s son — there’s a history of similar and mostly better entertainment out there deserving your recognition. Below is a list of 12 animated and puppet movies (apologies to TV series such as Wonder Showzen and the Muppet Show pilot special “Sex and Violence”), most of which aren’t at all for kids even if they look like they are.
Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure (1929)
While early animation was often meant more for adults rather than children, this silent short film was definitely not suited for anyone under a certain age. Considered the first pornographic work of animation, Buried Treasure (also known as Pecker Island) showcases its main character, the very well-endowed Eveready Harton, in his sexual pursuits with women and donkeys while also having accidental relations with a man and a cow. There’s also a montage of various animals having sex plus a woman masturbating. All apparently done in service (partly out of the country due to its content) for a party in honor of Windsor McKay and involving three animation studios and the talents of such legends as Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, and Walter Lantz.
Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935)
An entry in Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies series, this animated short adapts the classic nursery rhyme of the same name. Obviously, because it’s based on story for children, the cartoon is also meant for kids. Right? Yeah, well children weren’t so protected back then, as the Oscar-nominated film (similar to the original poem) deals with the title character being killed. Then we see the murder investigation and trial — of course, there is some of that expected 1930s racist personification on display — but going off book, the short does have a happier ending. If your kids recognize caricatures of old Hollywood icons such as Mae West, Harpo Marx, and others, they’ll appreciate this film even more.
Mickey Mouse in Vietnam (1968)
While The Happytime Murders doesn’t feature any specific Muppets in its spoof of the Henson brand of puppetry, there is an obvious implication of their being like Sesame Street characters — plus there was a marketing issue that led to the PBS show filing suit against the movie. Similar to the more famous Bambi Meets Godzilla, this very short animated short by Lee Savage and Milton Glaser explicitly takes an iconic and beloved children’s character and kills him, her with a bullet in the head in Vietnam as an anti-war gesture. Disney almost took legal action against the film, but due to it being so underground and profitless, there was no good reason for a lawsuit. The short was even “lost” for almost 50 years, finally resurfacing on YouTube in 2013.
Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973)
Like Happytime Murders director Brian Henson, king of X-rated animation Ralph Bakshi started his career working on genuine kiddy fare. When it came time for him to go out on his own and make animated features for adults, he began with back-to-back films that look like grittier versions of children’s entertainment. First, he adapted Robert Crumb’s anthropomorphic animal comic strip “Fritz the Cat” as a movie that might have been mistaken for Disney had it not capitalized on its X rating for its marketing. Bakshi’s better follow-up, Heavy Traffic, is a hybrid animated crime film inspired by The Godfather that has been likened to a pornographic version of School House Rock meets Mean Streets.
Let My Puppets Come (1976)
The only movie on this list to be considered an actual porno due to its inclusion of genuine, non-simulated explicit human sexual activity (in addition to puppet sex), Let My Puppets Come long preceded the more infamous raunchy puppet movie on this list made by a now more famous filmmaker. This feature film, originally planned as a short, is directed by Gerard Damiano of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones fame and stars porn publisher Al Goldstein (and maybe some future Jim Henson puppeteers early in their career?). The plot is simple — it’s centered on the making of a porno — and features some spoofing of television that is sort of like X-rated Sesame Street material. Supposedly (but unlikely), it was marketed in its time as “a sexy muppet movie.”
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
Of all the true Muppet movies out there, why am I recommending The Muppets Take Manhattan? Why not the better original Muppet Movie or my personal favorite The Great Muppet Caper? Why not one of Brian Henson’s directorial efforts, like The Muppet Christmas Carol or Muppet Treasure Island? Well, besides the fact that I think Manhattan is underrated and nothing to do with Brian’s involvement in this one, too, the third Muppets movie is interesting next to The Happytime Murders for putting the Muppets characters in the crime-ridden location of New York City. It’s not as gritty as the real Big Apple of the time, of course, but like a lot of NYC-set movies of the ’80s, this both plays down but also makes light of the city’s dangers, depicting such things as a Central Park mugging, rat-infested eateries, and a big-time confidence scheme.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
If there’s any movie that The Happytime Murders most resembles, more than anything involving puppets, it’s this landmark animation and live-action hybrid from Robert Zemeckis and Richard Williams. Like the new R-rated puppet feature, this far more kid-friendly feature (outside of the then-controversial sexual nature of Jessica Rabbit) is set in a world where humans interact with non-human entities that are known for starring in children’s entertainment. And it pairs a human — someone who hates the non-human bunch — with one of these discriminated-against characters for an investigation into a murder mystery. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though, it’s the detective who is human, and the other character is a toon.
Meet the Feebles (1989)
Before he was the respected art-house director of Heavenly Creatures and the revered blockbuster director of the Lord of the Rings (and Hobbit) movies, Peter Jackson was a small-time low-budget filmmaker in New Zealand helming splatter comedies and puppet porn. Meet the Feebles isn’t quite as X-rated as Let My Puppets Come, of course, but in a way, it’s more perverse and is certainly much darker and funnier. Also initially intended as a short, the musical comedy spoofs the Muppets by focusing on animal puppets employed in a variety show (for the stage rather than TV), and it makes much of The Happytime Murders seem tame and childish in comparison, which is silly considering it was made nearly 30 years earlier.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
One of the recurring jokes and themes of Being John Malkovich is the misconception that puppetry is an art form solely meant for the enjoyment of children. The feature film debut of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who’d later write and direct the puppet-based animation feature Anomalisa), the brilliant meta-textual comedy stars John Cusack as a struggling puppeteer who occasionally is victim to violence due to his public performance of a puppet show erotically depicting the Romeo and Juliet-esque story of Abelard and Heloise. If you think about it, the movie also features sex with puppets, since the titular John Malkovich is basically a human puppet when inhabited by and taken over by Cusack’s character.
Team America: World Police (2004)
If there was anything in Team America that had people talking during its release, it was the puppet sex. The animated feature, which parodies action movies as well as the US as a superpower post-9/11, stars marionette style puppets without strings, and during one of its memorable montages, two characters really go at it, with every possible position that filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame) could think of and get away with. Originally the sequence was much longer, but the MPAA wasn’t too kind to the idea of puppets peeing pooping on each other while making love. So, the sequence had to be cut for an R rating. Not surprisingly, the brutal action movie violence stuff was all fine with the film classification board.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)
Kevin Clash is among the puppeteers who worked on The Happytime Murders, and that’s not surprising given the fact that he worked with Brian Henson on many Muppet movies and other projects in the past. But it’s also Clash’s first notable known gig since he resigned from Sesame Street, for which he had created and been performing the hugely popular Elmo character, due to a scandal involving a relationship with a minor. The year before his life and career fell apart, Clash garnered his most fame as himself by being the subject of this hit documentary, which biographically profiles the longtime Henson Company staple and his creation. The fact that Clash’s life took a dark turn in the public eye soon after goes along with the theme of children’s entertainment fodder meeting harder edges, but it’s the real-life version. For more docs to watch after this one, check out I Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story, Her Master’s Voice, and the current smash hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor?