Review: Sausage Party

sausage-party-trailer-stillMidway through Sausage Party, the film’s lone stylistic experiment clarifies the purpose of the foul, if perceptive, demon that writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have wrought. The animators call on the memory of the charitably sketch-like 2D animation style practiced by rabble-rousers like Ralph Bakshi to insinuate the chaos of an earlier animation world (the ’70s and ’80s) where Disney was dead, Pixar never existed, and animation was an honest-to-god experimental underworld cast adrift without a purpose except to mess up the joint. With the end of the ‘80s, Disney resurfaced as a guiding light from the heavens, and Pixar followed soon in their wake, two entities (well, Pixar especially) that more or less retooled adult-themed animation as a sacrificial lamb in the West (in comparison to Japan, for instance). Animation now exonerated of its crimes of being dangerous, the world was a better place once again.

Or was it? In Sausage Party, the 2D stylistic interlude backdrops a vision of a harried, terrorized, pre-Pixar past world now smoothed-over with the arrival of 3D CG animation. But this new world is also potentially neutralized of the material complications and contradictions found in the tangible world, replaced with a chintzy, glossy plastic fable. That fable, for this film, is religion, a desperate attempt to keep it cool constructed by a cabal of non-perishable food items to pacify the terror of the outside world. See, in the past, the supermarket was a harrowing existential walking nightmare, a waiting game for personified food objects gifted with only the knowledge that being purchased would mean their imminent demise once eaten. Lacking the means to act on their terror, the only recourse, however passive, was an impromptu stapling together of a fictitious vision, a way to simmer down the terror of waiting for death by erecting an unconscious dream about the afterlife. The new world beyond the market, cascading through the supermarket halls via Alan Menken lyrics, brandishes false pleasures that beget genuine happiness: being purchased is a pathway to heaven, and pleasure, and nothing more.

So religion is on the table from moment one. But the fictitious fable is not merely religion but the sacrosanct family films that push doctrinal traditionalism, namely Disney and Pixar films, the antecedents to which Sausage Party refers. Nominally a religious parable about a hot dog named Frank (Seth Rogen) who discovers the fell reality that life beyond the aisles isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and must cope with the crisis of whether to tell his edible friends, and how to, Sausage Party also intractably comingles its religious dogmatism with the Disney and Pixar edifices. Diegetic references to those companies are parsimonious. But the film’s opening number is a dead-ringer for the house of mouse (written by their go-to songsmith no less), and the “inanimate but animate objects in crisis” theme is obviously, even objectively, a Toy Story riff. There’s little recourse against the awareness that Sausage Party has the slippery-slope to puritanical conservatism in Disney and Pixar on the mind.

Toy Story too was a religious parable after a fact, the finale of the trilogy’s climax inexplicably religious in its framing and the series overall relying on a silent mantra of doing good deeds and being rewarded in the after-life for it (when Andy grows up, his good toys are reborn anew with a new life and a new god child to worship). Sausage Party dares propose the less gregarious, more contested questions of blind belief and how it mutates into an all-encompassing proxy for hatred (the “song” that spreads good cheer of the after-life to the food items is massaged into a democratic affair where every type of food gets its one-line to shine, often with hatred for the other groups). The song, a once meaningful but false beacon of hope that did usher in genuine happiness, if only for the moment of life, now promises that food objects must obey the edict of passivity, of acquiescence, of life within but never outside the package, never to interact with other potential friends of other food types (and maybe learn a thing or two about them in the process).

Or fulfill their latent desires, which for these distinctly adult food products, include copious sex. Frank and his beau Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog bun, open the film positively salivating for one another, but the bylaws of the song whisper that they must restrain from bodily contact, less they be denied prosperity when they are “picked” by the gods to leave the doldrums of aisle life. Of course, when things go awry and an abused Honey Mustard jar (Danny McBride) tells all, our lovebirds are left physically and mentally thrown into disarray, along with new friends including Kareem Abdul Lavash (Dave Krumholtz), Sammy Bagel Jr (Edward Norton), and Teresa del Taco (Salma Hayek) (I’ll let you fill in the ethnic stereotypes, because the film certainly does it for me within minutes of starting; ditto for a villain that is an amusingly over-stressed take on comedic literalism). From there, the film marshals as a parable of personal crisis and the tension of religion as a social battleground (compared to Toy Story’s individualist belief structures).

Sausage Party also unpacks a cross-examination of the implicit traditionalism of Disney’s squeaky-clean structures and the deeply tenuous morality of many childrens’ film in America (and adult ones): that achievement in the world is a one-to-one corollary with belief, and that simply believing in something (religion, atheism, personal agency, or what have you) earns you a world to express your beliefs. In Sausage Party, even Frank, the new atheist, is going to have to stamp down his Four Horseman pretentiousness and think pragmatically to get him anywhere as far as convincing the world of his belief system.

Which requires chutzpah, admittedly, a chutzpah that Sausage Party routinely feints toward and then overexerts when it mistakes “adult animation” for “adolescent animation” and finds refuge in a morass of pitiless humor, foraging through the aisles for ethnic stereotypes while attempting, with some futility, to possibly suggest that the stereotyping is a rib at the racialized nature of corporate food marketing. An argument that requires a severe squint to accept, mind you, as does the formalist tick that the inescapably untextured tones of the animation implicitly poke fun at the plastic over-texture of fancier, more bespoke CG from the likes of Pixar.

On that latter note, though, I’m more or less happy to cooperate, since it corroborates the bent, cocaine-addled Pixar-pastiche aura of the film. If relying on intentionally plastic CG animation to rib at Pixar is Sausage Party’s only formal achievement, then I’m happy to oblige. Without that wrinkle, the Dutch angles and manic profundo rosso hues of the horror-inspired moments of clarity where the food are forced to confront the fictitious benevolence of their gods are the only visual touches of note in an otherwise dismal looking slice of inescapably subpar animation without any particular conceptual excuse to justify the aesthetic emptiness of the picture.

Therein the film cascades right into its limits: it’s a parable in broad, adolescent terms, the kind of film people appraise intellectually for conceptually being about religious liberation without ever bothering to consider whether the film artistically earns its themes. On its own terms, the film is a moderately blissed-out, daffy orgy of intermittent Tex Avery-styled visual entropy, but as a religious parable, it has to stand exclusively on the legs of the fact that it is a religious parable in the first place (and that this is surprising) rather than that it arouses any particular formal justification for why this particular religious parable needed to be a deathly looking gross-out animated film.

It’s a tricky subject, alright: the value of religion to pacify the inner existential crises of people cast adrift in the throngs of a terrifying world, as well as the casual and increasingly mushrooming perversion of that religion’s sometimes necessary evil into a Puritanical force less for coping than for oppressing. And bless the film for going there. But the actual caliber of the parable is exclusively crayon-painted, playing up a mythic, fable-like broadness. Absent Disney’s inimitable skill at evoking dreamlike, fable-caked imagery, the broadness rather thins out the parable, turning it into a wiry, fragile plea for depth the film doesn’t actually requite. I know, I know. “Animated films are for kids, we should appreciate that they have nice messages at all and not bugger on about whether they express the messages eloquently through their formal and artistic medium”. I’d be a jerk to disagree. Sausage Party is for kids after all. Wait?

Where the film does get the job done is as a satire of the Pixar-style, essentially stripping the beauty away and leaving more or less a dry husk of an allegory amusing purely because of its brio to “go there”. And yeah, Sausage Party goes there. Again, the aesthetic limits hurt, badly, and the sheen of the CG (meant to evoke a bad facsimile of realism) lacks the Tex Avery visual spark where limited animation style was stoked into an excuse to curve, contort, deform, and crook representational, physical form every which way. But there’s spunk to spare in this film, especially in the finale act, a thoughtful visual analysis of Pixar’s typical third-act kerfuffle where there films devolve into over-exerted chases. Needless to say, when Sausage Party is more content to indulge in the Looney Tunes antics circling overhead throughout, the deliberately un-pictorial animation is on vastly more stable ground.

In Sausage Party, the conclusion adopts the same Pixar wavelength of shuttling a thoughtful allegory into a headlong rush of antic chase mania, but Sausage perverts the swivel by deliberately over-exerting the chase past the point of over-extortion and into a structureless, gruesome mess. The post-climax is  … well, a flurry of almost free-associative climaxes, a bold and brazen expression of liberation from self-policing visualized in kaleidoscopic editing rhythms that  depict freedom from worldly structures  by literally liberating the film of the need to “edit” according to physical space or character continuity. Until this point, something foul (the need to conform to the edict of pseudo-intelligence) had been keeping the film from devolving into Rogen and Godlberg auto-erotically charging themselves in the writer’s chairs with all their actor friends doing the drunken rounds in the studio at their personal animation house party. In the end, the writers and the animators un-cloister themselves from the need to thematize much as the characters un-cloister themselves from their packages and their religious moorings and,well,   … there’s a lot of unclogging.

But it’s formalist unclogging! A moment of sexual and mental release, food products unleashing themselves from the shackles of worldly Puritanism, in a scene incarnated visually as a carousel of anecdotal, orgiastic images liberated from the need to conform to a stable visual flow? Each shot stimulating the next in as the images flow impulsively and with intuition rather than with pesky concerns like the cinematic “good behavior” of paying attention to “narrative” (exactly the concerns about their lives that these freaky perishables and non-perishables have thrown by the wayside)? Bringing down the house with a heretical, hare-brained sacrilege of the Pixar name, a pan-sexual, pan-racial freedom-fighting sexcapade, and a scene that understands freedom from mental shackles exclusively through uninhibited editing rhythms? Now that’s a trifecta, and flaws aside, like I said: Sausage Party goes for it, and in its conclusion, as well as a gooey speckling of other moments the film greases out of its questionable religious parable, it such gets there. Mostly, if the film visualizes food store as America’s cloaca of consumerism, then morally rambunctious moments in full-on flagrante like these keep the film on the right side of the rectum. The characters’ spiritualist musings come clean as a sexual throb, Rogen and Goldberg reveal that they’re really just horny animals, and everyone involved is better for the libido-driven bacchanalia grounding.

Now, why am I overcome with a desperate craving to wash myself clean? And I didn’t even use the “food for thought” pun that would have reserved a special circle of hell for me.

Score: 6/10

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