The sheer number of CG animated movies about anthropomorphized animals and objects, from Pixar on down to their lowliest imitators, leaves an opening ripe for parody. Enter Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (co-writers on the likes of Pineapple Express and This is the End) with the idea to go hard-R on the Pixar formula. In Sausage Party they imagine the world of a grocery store from a food’s-eye view. The cartoon products sing an Alan Menken song about how much they wish to get purchased and live forever with their gods (us) in the Great Beyond. Little do they know certain death and digestion await. It’s a funny idea, and mostly follows through to its logical conclusions. But in pitching the humor they go too high and too low, reveling in an allegorical approach that’s a cockeyed consideration of religion and mortality, and in a nonstop barrage of four-letter words and innuendoes. The manic pace hammers away nuance with glee, and the execution grows thin, repetitive, and one-note awfully quickly.
It starts with the idea that the store is split up into its own little countries, each aisle organized around racial and cultural stereotypes of their respective cuisines. The only thing that brings them all together is worship of the shoppers. But when a hot dog (Seth Rogen) gets a hint about the truth of what sits beyond the sliding doors, he’s desperate to get proof and bring a nihilistic, hedonistic brand of atheism back to his brethren. He and his hot dog bun lover (Kristen Wiig) get lost in a tragic shopping cart accident shot like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, with a ripped open ramen cup trying to stuff his noodles back in, a jar of peanut butter weeping over spilled jam, and a banana with its face slowly peeling off. That’s a fun bit of inspiration, but the movie grows repetitively insulting as it winds its way through nonstop ethnic jokes. The hot dog and his bun-to-be, who are waiting until after purchase to get together (there’s no buns- or sausage-related innuendo that goes unspoken), wander through the store looking to get back to their aisle. Each stop on the way brings them into contact with an endlessly condescending parade of stereotypes and racial humor.
The Mexican foods (including a lesbian taco voiced by Salma Hayek) drink all day and follow secret tunnels to better lives. The Chinese foods speak in exaggerated rolling Ls and Rs. The German food wants to eliminate all the juice. The Middle Eastern lavash (David Krumholtz) feuds with a bagel (Edward Norton doing a Woody Allen impression) he thinks is unfairly settling in his aisle. The fruits are lilting lispers. The grits (Craig Robinson) is a blaxploitation gangster. The firewater (Bill Hader) is a Native American whose every appearance is signaled with an eagle’s cry. It’s a pileup of the worst kinds of tiring wink-wink racism and prejudice in pursuit of anti-racism and cross-demographic understanding. It’s so wearing, asked to laugh again and again at this sort of thing as the movie demands to feel like it’s okay because it reaches the right conclusions. Rogen and Goldberg (writing with The Night Before’s Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir) want to make a filthy adult comedy that parodies the style of the CG kids’ movie while still having a clear moral message. In other words, it’s an adults-only kids’ movie, and every bit as juvenile, wrongheaded, and infantilizing as that sounds.
The movie remains on a fairly obvious level, relying on the shock value of hearing cartoon characters swear, get violent, and express sexual urges. (Anyone who thinks that’s a new idea should talk to Ralph Bakshi.) The thing is, the writers have imagined a funny world and have an interesting perspective. They have plenty of smile-worthy puns that go down easy. Why insist on such a barrage of cynical cheap shots? Other distasteful ingredients include swipes at the disabled (consider the plight of a deformed sausage (Michael Cera) whose only soul mate can be a smushed bun) and a scene in which a feminine hygiene product (Nick Kroll) sexually assaults a juice box. (You read that correctly. That happens.) Sausage Party crosses the line, not because it wants to make an R-rated animated movie, but because it allows itself license to push further than it should with such touchy material. That it’s sometimes funny, and tethered to a surreal premise, doesn’t alleviate its uglier impulses.
Directing this perverse sledgehammer to propriety are veterans of CG family films Conrad Vernon (of a variety of DreamWorks features like Madagascar 3) and Greg Tiernan (of Thomas the Tank Engine products). They clearly relish cooking up the movie’s crass and disgusting surprises, but it’s also clearly done on the cheap. The character designs are all slightly off, not just the ugly food, but the stiff and wobbly humans lumbering over them as well. The sets and locations appear Saturday-morning simple and crude. It’s just not quite right every step of the way, in every way. It has a fine setup and some truly jaw-dropping final moments staggeringly inappropriate and in many ways inexplicable, but at least relatively non-toxic – a massive pansexual free-for-all followed by a surprising smashing of the fourth wall – compared to what comes before. But by that point the movie’s been such an obvious, overdetermined, obnoxious slog, it’s hard to cook up much interest.