Review: 'Sausage Party' destroys the idea that American animation has to be for kids
Sausage Party is obviously the product of diseased minds, and I love it.
One of the things I think works best about this profoundly R-rated comedy is that it represents a very real attempt to expand the definition of what an animated studio film can be, and any time that happens, I’m interested. There have been plenty of attempts that have failed over the years, but this one is fairly sly about it. A cursory glance at the film might leave you thinking it’s just another in the endless parade of kid’s films about the inner lives of toys or pets or bugs or cars. I suspect there will be numerous parents who make the mistake of taking their kids to the film because they don’t pay attention, and I look forward to hearing the furious accounts of what happens when they realize that the hot dog reeeeeeeeeally likes to say “f**k.” By making this look like the sort of film that studios think of when they think of animation, but subverting the very nature of those movies, Sausage Party is more than funny. It’s downright revolutionary.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was asked to moderate a conversation with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg at Comic-Con, and I ended up being flown to and from San Diego by Sony in order to make that happen. Before I left town, I had to see the film in order to know what I was getting into, and then I watched the film again with a full audience. This review is fairly easy because I’ve had a chance to have that second look, and I think sometimes it’s necessary to do that. Sausage Party yielded fresh rewards with my second viewing, and one of the best things about the film is the way it takes what easily could have been a one-note joke and then constantly throws new invention and new ideas at the audience. The film tackles ideas as diverse as religious dogma and the way we’re conditioned to accept instead of questioning, the superficial differences that drive us apart, the fears that keep us from being who we truly are because of the judgment we are afraid we will face, and even how we can use love to conquer hate. Considering it’s a movie that is, on the surface, about a talking hot dog who really wants to have sex with a talking hot dog bun, that’s almost a magic trick.
Credit, then, must go to Rogen and Goldberg, as well as co-writers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir and directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, for taking this profoundly silly idea and turning it into a film with a surprising amount of bite, and to Anapurna Films for taking a chance on adult animation, something that sends most studios and production companies running. Vernon and Tiernan both come from backgrounds where they’ve created massive amounts of exactly the kind of product that Sausage Party so handily deflates. Tiernan’s got a laundry list of Thomas The Tank Engine products on his resume, and Vernon was a co-director on films like Shrek 2, Monsters vs Aliens (where he first met Rogen) and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. It’s essential that these guys got this stuff right, or it wouldn’t really have that same forbidden feel to it. When Mel Brooks directed Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, part of why they work so well is because they adhere so closely to the reality of the thing they’re parodying. That kind of attention to detail comes from love, and I remember interviewing Conrad Vernon for Monsters before it came out. He was genuinely proud of the film that he made, and why wouldn’t he be? He got to do a weird nod to ’50s science-fiction in the guise of a kid film. The films he’s co-directed are all distinguished by a particular manic energy that feels dense with jokes but not frantic, which is tough to pull off, and Sausage Party has that same sort of breathless energy. It is structured like a Pixar film, and it feels like you’re watching Toy Story while waiting for a speedball of mescaline and ecstasy to kick in. First things get weird, and then there’s this really disturbing horny subtext to everything.
My only real complaint about the film comes from the first fifteen minutes or so. It feels like the film works overtime to set up its R-rated bonafides, with characters swearing so constantly that it almost becomes white noise. Once the film settles down into itself, there’s still plenty of raunch, but it feels more natural. One thing’s for sure: if any parents make the mistake of taking kids to this without realizing what it is, they will understand the massive error they’ve made within moments of the film starting. Even the cheerful Alan Menken song that opens the film, with all the products in the grocery store singing joyously about how excited they are to be selected by The Gods, is riddled with filth. If that’s the only thing Sausage Party had on its mind, it would get old, but there are plenty of ideas at work here.
Most importantly, the film grapples with the idea of faith versus proof, and how we use one to comfort ourselves while the other is frequently terrifying. I understand why people want faith in their lives, and I think there is real value to the idea that not everything that is important in this universe can be quantified and categorized and explained. I’m not wired for it, though, and that rational part of my brain looks at science and history and what we know about the world and just doesn’t understand how you can tune that out in favor of your particular fairy tale, even after someone shows you how the story developed through various cultures or how certain myths are retold over and over. Sausage Party manages to wade into that divide without being insulting, which is sort of amazing considering this is a film about how horny the food at the grocery store really is.
The voice cast is very funny here. Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen hold things down as the leads, and the way they manage to almost make you invest in a romantic storyline as ridiculous as this is a testament to just how committed they are when they play a scene. By far, the winner of the film is Nick Kroll, who plays a literal douche who becomes the film’s bad guy, and while we’ve heard Kroll run variations on this voice before, it is again a matter of commitment. He gives so much as the character that it is brutally, painfully funny at times. Michael Cera also does terrific work as Barry, a slightly misshapen hot dog who has the film’s most surprising journey. Bill Hader plays three different characters, James Franco shows up as a human being with a fondness for bath salts, and Salma Hayek is surprisingly raw as a taco who tries to deny her feelings for Brenda the bun. There’s a lovely back and forth between Edward Norton and David Krumholtz as a bagel and a lavash who are forced to travel together, and I’d love to know what Woody Allen thinks of Norton’s voice work in the film. Even Danny McBride gets to score a few quick points as Honey Mustard, whose crisis of faith manifests after he is taken home by mistake, then returned to the store.
The film builds to two totally unhinged sequences in a row, and it’s actually kind of surprising the MPAA actually gave the film an R. I’m not objecting; I’m just surprised. There is a montage of insane sexual content here that will make the Team America: World Police puppet sex seem positively Amish by comparison, and the thought of all the animators who have spent their careers making movies for young audiences finally cutting loose on something as insane as this makes me laugh just as much as anything you actually see onscreen. Sausage Party is a milestone in studio animation because it feels like animators being unleashed, and considering the largely unrealized potential of animation, that is a welcome thing, indeed.
Sausage Party will infuriate tight-assed parents everywhere starting this Friday.