“But the deli meats don’t have any actual penis or vagina, right?” Howard Stern asked Seth Rogen earlier this week.
“There’s a pita bread with a scrotum,” Rogen said.
A hairless scrotum, in fact — that little detail matters. According to Rogen, a bit of digital manscaping was all it took to convince the Motion Picture Association of America to knock its rating for Sausage Party down from NC-17 to a less exotic R. I should mention: those balls, and the pita they’re attached to, are animated. Sausage Party is an animated raunch comedy. And for Rogen and writer Evan Goldberg, it’s a labor of love that’s been 10 years in the making. With that much time and effort invested, why not take a risk? The idea all along, Rogen has said, was to see how far he and the other filmmakers could push it.
The answer: Pretty far. It’s a wonder everything we see in Sausage Party’s climactic food orgy — a taco licking the slit of a bun, a box of grits long-stroking a cracker and yelling “Take that, cracker!” — was deemed fair game. The MPAA’s Nobel-worthy war on neglectful scrotal hygiene notwithstanding, Sausage Party’s codirectors, Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan, and its writers — including Rogen and Goldberg — were given plenty of latitude. And they take advantage.
The humor of Sausage Party is in the irony of its form. It’s an animated theatrical release, all big eyes and rounded edges and kid-friendly expressions. But it’s adult — and not Pixar’s pursuit of “adulthood.” This version means dick jokes and getting high on bath salts. The animated market is dominated by bright, vibrant kids’ movies that remember to cater to weary parents, too. Studios have mastered the art of milking the twentysomething nostalgia for long-gone childhood for all it’s worth — but in kids’ movies, where the knack for a dirty joke is of course underserved.
Sausage Party is, by contrast, a date night endeavor. “For a long time,” said Vernon at the premiere, “I’ve seen a lot of animation just be for a very specific audience. We don’t make movies for that audience.” He does, actually; the difference is that this time, they won’t bring their kids.
The hero of Sausage Party is adult, too: he’s a horny hot dog named Frank (Rogen). Frank belongs to an eight-pack of Fancy Dogs, up on a shelf next to a pack of Glamour Buns, the nearest of whom is his girlfriend, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), whose lipsticked mouth is upright, per her slit. Frank’s dream is to finally get unwrapped from the pack and get in that slit. “I can’t wait to finally just get up in there,” he says. “Gonna raw dog it.” He’s a one-bun weiner, a dedicated Bun-ogamist.
The premise of the movie is a gem. The humans are gods, and the desire of almost every character is to be chosen for life in the Great Beyond — that is, to be bought and carried out into the bright light of life beyond the grocery store. “Dear gods,” they sing every morning, to a tune written by the great Alan Menken, “you’re so divine in each and every way — to you we pray!”
They don’t know that we plan to eat them.
That’s the clever turn that gives Sausage Party a slightly satirical bite. They’re like you and me, these foodstuffs. They have Beliefs. They live, die, and get high; have dreams, religions — and that ridiculous grandiosity makes the movie. The fruits are gay, the bagels and pita cannot be friends, and the douche is, of course, an actual douche. It’s a highly ordered, pun-riddled world, and there’s something to that. When a can of soup falls and cracks open, it tries to scoop its noodly innards back into its body, á la Saving Private Ryan. When a tub of honey mustard gets returned to the store by a customer, he decides he does not want to go back out into the real world, having seen what really happens in the kitchens and on the grills of the gods, and jumps out of a grocery cart to his gooey death.
The whole thing feels like divine punishment — and because its world is a microcosm of our own, the movie feels like a loose satire of every political conflict you can think of. Is that funny? Is it insightful? Does it work? Certainly it’s in line with the model set forth by South Park and Team America: World Police collaborators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. These are soft satires, whose commitment to letting us revel in ribald, off-color humor seems to come with the price of jabs that fall just short of knocking their subject to the ground. The subject, in this case, is difference: the irony of a pita and a bagel hating each other despite coming from the same aisle. Not that this movie means to throw a knock-out punch — that’s just it. Its ambitions are deliberately limited. The pleasure of soft satire is that it won’t go there, won’t turn wholly political, perhaps because that wouldn’t be as outright entertaining. Is that a flaw? Better to say it’s a missed opportunity.
Look at the calendar: it’s been a year dominated by animated features. There’s Zootopia, about an artificial utopia of prey and predators who’ve managed to live together in peace. There’s The Secret Life of Pets, about an underclass of animals who’ve been wronged by humans. There’s Finding Dory, in which a fish finds herself. These are three of the seven highest-grossing movies of the year, and they aren’t half-bad. But they’re as morally wholesome as a church service. Can we make fun of them, now? Please?
That, at least, is the most adult impulse: not merely to be dirtier, but to poke fun at Pixar’s sentimental education. To roast the whole endeavor. The surprising thing about Sausage Party is that its desire to swerve from the norm with dirty humor is evened out by an equally strong impulse to bolster those norms, follow their beats and maintain them, rather than ravaging them with satirical bite. Parker and Stone’s projects tend to be reflexive by nature, satires that make fun of both musicals and animation as art forms, and of the idea that animation should in any way be wielded to promote easily digestible ideas, that it should be blandly principled or pedagogical. South Park at its best degrades cartoons from inside. Sausage Party, by contrast, is a little less willing to make fun of itself.
Is Sausage Party a smarter movie than Zootopia? Certainly it’s got more hot dogs slitting buns. But at heart, they’re about many of the same things, and in much the same way — Sausage Party is less earnest, but it’s still a little earnest. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny, or that it doesn’t work well as a stoner comedy, or a raunch comedy, or a comedy in which Edward Norton does a truly gut-busting Woody Allen impression. But it does mean that it misses out on being the movie its creators seemingly set out to make: a movie for adults that’s not only darker and nastier than Pixar’s output, but smarter, too.
Sausage Party is best when it breaks form and stops giving a fuck — see also: the orgy — and worst when it merely appears to do so, by cracking a dick joke that, no matter how dirty, can’t counteract the firm moral framework at play. The dick jokes are, of course, the best part. The rest? Kid stuff.