Very smart about being very dumb, Sausage Party expertly mixes low-brow shock humour and puns with high-brow deconstructions of the default CG Animation template and a nuanced discussion about faith and religion.
When you hear somebody try and claim that a work is “un-PC” or “equal-opportunities offensive” or some other such, what they typically mean is that they’re about to take a giant bath in their privilege in order to spend a lengthy amount of time punching down at easy, oft-undeserving targets whilst trying to rationalise that by occasionally throwing a joke in the direction of the privileged lead character. They’re often just hateful, using their “un-PC” tags as an excuse to regurgitate tired, offensive stereotypes without comment for cheap “oh my God, you’re not supposed to say THAT” shock laughs. We even saw an example of that last month with Ricky Gervais’s genuinely insufferable Life on the Road, a 90-odd minute excuse for Gervais to do his usual, tired, lazy bullying schtick in the hopes that somebody somewhere would be sufficiently risen by it.
Sausage Party is “un-PC” and “equal-opportunities offensive” in the same way as Crank 2: High Voltage, by contrast. Crank 2 is brazenly offensive – filled with sequences of gangsters getting lubed-up shotguns inserted into their anus, strippers having the silicon in their fake boobs shot out and leaking all over the camera, multiple dogging montages, clingy barely-intelligent Taiwanese prostitutes, gay never-before-mentioned identical twin brothers into rough sex from strapping Black men who also suffer from Full Bodied Tourette’s, and Glenn Howerton being shot in the face from a ricocheting bullet – but it’s never malicious. Instead, by going so brazenly over-the-top, so utterly ridiculous, so divorced from anything close to reality or believability, it manages to leap over “offensive” and instead circle right back around to “hilarious.” That OTT nature makes the film feel rather inclusive, because it’s really smart about being so very, very dumb, and there’s a tangible affection for everybody involved as a result.
That’s the kind of level that Sausage Party aims for, and whilst, much like Crank 2, I’m pretty certain that I am going to Hell for laughing at 90% of this film, it succeeds because it is also very smart about being so very, very, very dumb. And make no mistake, so much of this movie is predicated on dumb jokes, a combination of incredibly easy old-school puns and pushing its premise to what would appear to be its absolute limits only to keep going further than those. It’s a film with the courage of its convictions, that knows exactly what it’s doing, where it needs to go and what it needs to do to pull that off, and never wavers or pulls back from that. It trusts itself, trusts that the audience will stick with it the whole way, and is aware of itself enough to know exactly how to avoid tipping over into maliciousness or hatred.
Those goals, for the record, involve a surprisingly clever deconstruction of the current CGI animated feature landscape, and especially the template of Pixar “what if [x] had feelings” movies. Set predominately in a supermarket, food wakes up every morning hoping to be chosen by “The Gods” (we humans) for transportation to “The Great Beyond” where food is loved and looked-after by humans for the rest of their days. This, of course, is not what happens, especially since The Gods can’t see food as living creatures with arms and legs and voices and such, instead being a myth created by the non-perishables to provide false hope for food so that they don’t turn all nihilistic and hopeless in the face of a total lack of any better purpose in life. Also, they are all really horny and want to fuck each other badly.
That’s the central dynamic of Sausage Party, using its central premise – applying all the Fridge Logic you’re not supposed to think about with these movies to the most extreme possible scenario – for both smart, nuanced criticisms of both animated features and larger theological concepts as a whole, and dumb jokes about food having uncontrollable sexual urges and “a hankering for a hunk of herb.” It’s the kind of film that offers up a totally superfluous villain, a Douche (played by Nick Kroll in possibly the most perfect casting of all-time), who is entertaining in his own right and works as a commentary on often-superfluous villains in other animated features (*coughcoughUpcough*), then turns around and introduces us to Teresa del Taco, a voracious lesbian desperate to get religiously devout Brenda Bunsen to “eat each other’s boxes.”
Occasionally, the film does go overboard on the fact that it’s an R-rated animated feature, especially in the early-going where it starts throwing around f-bombs like they’re going out of style, but most of the time when the film goes big, it goes big for a reason. There’s one joke especially at the film’s midway point that genuinely shocked myself and my friend in between our bouts of prolonged hysteria at it. I’m not even going to allude to it for fear of ruining it, but it was the point where I realised that the film wasn’t going to back down from its premise at any point. When it shocks, it shocks to further point out exactly how much the animated worlds created by studios like Pixar and its million lesser imitators require a suspension of disbelief. But, crucially, this is an affectionate parody, the kind of critique and parody that could only be made by people with genuine respect and love for the medium, but who want to give it a kind-hearted nudge in the ribs nonetheless.
And this extends to the rest of the film, too, particularly its handling of that religious undercurrent. On the one hand, it works as part of the general parody, taking the purposefully unacknowledged subtext of films like Toy Story and making it full-on text. But then the film also manages to lampoon Religion and Atheism as a whole in a way that could only be handled by people who subscribe to religious faiths or have done so in the past. Specifically, the film actually holds asshole atheists who run around discrediting people’s faiths, reductively simplifying complex disagreements as outsiders, and calling them all morons for blindly following something that gives them hope to account throughout the film. Sausage Party understands that faith is a wonderful thing and that to selfishly rip it away from people without offering them anything else to latch onto is just as awful as perverting Religion for your own hateful agendas and, sure, it may still have a slightly too reductive conclusion – one that comes down to those usual humanist arguments of finding common ground and seeing people as people being a solution to religious divides – but there’s still an understanding touch here, one that openly admits to not having all of the answers to the topics it poses.
If this all sounds needlessly highfalutin or like I’m really stretching on paper, then you need to understand that it really isn’t. These are things that Sausage Party openly brings up and addresses in between, and oftentimes within, its various shock gags, hardcore violence, and stupid puns. This is a film that characterises all fruits as camp gays and mines Teresa’s unfulfilled lesbian desires for golden gags, but also features a surprisingly sweet homosexual relationship between two characters that the film doesn’t make a huge deal out of. It’s a film that features German Sauerkrauts that want to exterminate the Juice, Lavash and Bagels that are explicitly Israel-Palestine references and with the names “Kareem Abdul Lavash” and “Sammy Bagel, Jr.” respectively, a six-pack of Canadian Beer that can’t stop saying “sorry,” a wad of gum that, due to having spent 20 years stuck to the underside of a scientist’s desk, is a cross between Steven Hawking and the T-1000…
You get the point. The film exists in this very, very precarious position of running the gauntlet of stereotypes whilst still trying to remain tolerant, because it genuinely doesn’t mean to be cruel, it’s just trying to make really stupid puns and funny gags, including a running gag involving food-based colloquialisms that never failed to slay me every time they went back to that well. And barring one instance – in the vaguest possible terms, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg don’t seem to have learned anything from when they tried handling rape in This Is The End – the film succeeds in that balancing act, primarily be actually being “equal-opportunities offensive” and being smart about these dumb jokes. These aren’t stereotypes being lazily lined up and fired through out of ignorance, almost every joke has clearly been thought through and is being done with the kindest of intentions. They even, arguably, fit into the parody aspect, of shallow characterisations and in side-casts and one-off characters in other animated features.
(I will also note, however, that I am a White British Male, and therefore am privileged in many ways that may cause me to be unable to see the offense in many of these jokes. So feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about all of this and the film is actually just massively racist, homophobic, etc.)
What I will say, though, is that whilst Sausage Party is very funny – eventually climaxing with a sequence so audaciously ridiculous, stupid, and designed for maximum shock value, all for the sake of the visual pun to end all visual puns, that’s almost definitely going to make my Best Scenes of 2016 list come year’s end – I would hesitate calling it brilliant or hysterical. The gag rate is superb, throwing jokes at you at roughly the same frequency as Donald Trump says horrible things, but there are still stretches (particularly in the early-going) where few of them fully land, when the film lays on the swearing or violence a bit too heavily. Furthermore, whilst the film does mostly look excellent for $19 million, the knowledge that it manages to do so thanks to exploitative, bullying, and outright unethical labour practices (that are sadly all too common in the animation industry but were especially prevalent here) rather taints things somewhat.
Those drawbacks aren’t deal breakers, though, and don’t distract from the fact that Sausage Party was one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I’ve had so far this year. There’s a version of this film that could have been a colossal, hateful disaster, which aimed for shock value for shock value’s sake and was nothing more than an excuse for a bunch of cartoon characters to say “fuck” a whole lot. Instead, Sausage Party is a really smart dumb comedy that manages to remember that an “un-PC” comedy only really works if actual thought has been put into it and if all of its targets are being treated with love and respect in the process. This is a film that can call attention to the arbitrary rules of animated worlds one minute, hilariously shut down reductive “why can’t your religions just both get along” rhetoric the next, have a Meat Loaf song play on the soundtrack whilst an actual meat loaf packet sings along, and then also feature a sequence in which an angry Mr. Grits box fucks a box of crackers without any of those things feeling out of place with one another. It’s one hell of a balancing act, but Rogen & Goldberg and the film’s directors Conrad Vernon & Greg Tiernan have pulled it off, and added another notch to the belt of Animation’s banner year in the process.