Cartoon satire, especially as a feature film, is risky. Audiences expect cartoons to be family-friendly, and there are few cartoon feature films that appealed to adult moviegoers looking for sharp, funny, downright dirty entertainment. But it’s happened, and the filmmakers were admired for the risks they took. Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat was just such a hit.
Sausage Party is meant for that niche, but it’s interesting because it tests the limits for what an audience finds funny. It was directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, and written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I laughed when a hot dog sweet-talked his “girlfriend”, a bun, saying he was excited about “laying himself” across her. But can you keep that up for an hour and a half? I think it does, and the film’s grosses agree with me.
The concept, while unwieldy, has enough mileage to stretch the fun to full-length. Briefly, it’s about the products in the supermarket, especially edibles of all kinds, and how they have been lied to about the “the great beyond”. They’ve been told by “Shopwell”, the evil market that owns and sells them, that they will enter Paradise whenever they are bought by someone. What they are never told is that they will be peeled, boiled, chopped up, chewed up and swallowed by monsters. But a shopping mishap one day sets some of them free to explore the world, and they are outraged at what they learn. When Frank, a hot dog, learns the truth, his bun-girlfriend Brenda Bunson, doesn’t believe him. She rejects him for denying her a meaningful purpose in life. Frank vows to get the market products to overthrow their owners, and to win Brenda back. The ensuing battle in the aisles is mock-heroic and often hilarious.
Here are some favorite moments:
1. Honey Mustard, returned to the store by a shopper, tries to tell the other products the horrible truth, but is rebuffed. He commits suicide by throwing himself off a shopping cart.
2. Teresa, a lesbian taco shell, is rejected, with sensitivity, by Brenda Bunson, who knows she is meant to be Frank’s “true” bun.
3. The store products start the day with an opening song of celebration, with a solo by an ear of corn, who has the best voice. This is reprised later, just before the battle with the Shopwell owners, over Frank’s near-hysterical objections.
4. Kareem, a middle-eastern lavash, discovers unfamiliar but delightful feelings towards Sammy, the Jewish bagel. Meanwhile, the gefilte fish jars curse Sammy as a traitor for befriending the lavash.
5. In celebration of their overthrow of the owners, the store products engage in a wild, joyous orgy of pansexual liberation.
I think the most important reason the film works is the animation, which gives convincingly human movement to dozens of familiar, inanimate foods and products. Everybody talks, constantly, but it wouldn’t be as funny if we didn’t accept these things as behaving like ourselves, or maybe just a little different.
But a nagging problem is the kind of talk. It is “blue”, premium cable talk, like on Ray Donovan. While teenagers are expected to be the core audience, the story has satirical elements that can stimulate serious discussion. But even teens don’t talk like party jerks all the time. In fact, Rogen mentioned in an interview how much he admires, and was influenced by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In that classic, we imagine the “toons” as real creatures who are exploited and oppressed by humans. The metaphor is firm, and delightfully apt. The tone seems right because the toons speak and react as people would if they had to live that way. But the foodstuffs in Sausage Party seem arrested in pre-adolescence. That’s good enough for broad comedy, but the satire is only half-baked.