By Preston Wilder
Cartoons have taught us a lot over the years. They’ve taught us that toys can talk, and fish can talk, and now even food products can talk – and not only can they talk but they’re capable of hope and guilt, and a faith in the divine and a lust to have sex with each other. In short, they have feelings, which (inevitably) makes the end of their lives quite traumatic. How do you think a potato feels when you peel off its skin with a grater – when you skin it alive, in other words – then drop it screaming into a pan of boiling water? Just because you can’t hear the screams doesn’t make it all right.
That’s the way it goes in Sausage Party, a foul-mouthed, decidedly adult, 18-rated cartoon that’s a bit of a one-joke premise but still manages to be wickedly clever. Not always clever, admittedly. When our hero Frank, a sausage (voiced by Seth Rogen), and his paramour Brenda, a hot dog bun (voice of Kristen Wiig), flirt with each other from their respective packaging on a supermarket shelf – telling what they plan to do once they’ve made it out the door to “the Great Beyond” – their banter isn’t exactly subtle. What begins as double entendre (“I’ll let you slip it in”, etc) gets increasingly single, degenerating into filthy-minded mating calls; the film seems to think that unleashing a volley of “f***”s is the rough equivalent of witty innuendo.
That’s always an issue in the films involving Rogen (he also co-produced and co-scripted), who’s congenitally sloppy and way too pleased with himself – yet this one is snappier than e.g. Bad Neighbours, the gags aiming low and generally hitting their targets. Much of it is ethnic humour, which I have no problem with: Salma Hayek plays a sultry taco, first encountered in a cantina full of “illegal products”, while a sub-plot involves the running battle between a Jewish bagel (Edward Norton, doing a nasal Woody Allen impression) and an Arab lavash bread. Some of it is the rather tired wheeze of familiar phrases given a food-appropriate twist, as in “I believe in bun-ogamy” or “I’m having an out-of-sausage experience”. And some of it is just marvellous non sequitur, like Frank’s pal Barry greeting “a fellow sausage” who turns out to be a used condom.
Is there more? Actually, there is. The “Great Beyond” is quite obviously Heaven, a nirvana ordained by “the gods”, and the underlying theme is the great lie peddled by religion – a theme Sausage Party actually works quite smartly, showing (a) how religion is consciously created as a way of salving people’s fear of Death, and (b) how those same people (or foodstuffs, in this case), even when confronted with evidence that ‘Heaven’ is simply oblivion (the proof is a cookbook, another nice touch), will choose to ignore the bad stuff and believe only in pleasant things, lashing out at the truth-teller for bursting their bubble. Religion is denial. Religion keeps the masses docile. Religion hates sex, including gay sex – “It’s just not what the gods intended” – and makes people feel guilty. Drugs are a much better path to a higher consciousness, and more fun too.
You don’t have to agree with this philosophy to appreciate its presence in a dumb cartoon; indeed, the cartoon format seems to have freed Rogen and Co. to be even more daring than usual. It’s unlikely that the Jewish-Arab feuding – or Lavash’s views on women, which might come under the heading of ‘Islamophobia’ – would’ve made the final cut in a non-animated comedy. The food massacre scene (when the luckless foods discover just how sadistic their human gods really are) certainly couldn’t have appeared if the film were live-action, played as splattery horror that’ll make you stop and think about the horrible things we do to our dinners. An ordinary kitchen becomes a charnel-house where veggies die in agony, sausages are sliced in half – splitting apart like that guy in Bone Tomahawk – and baby carrots are gobbled straight from the pack: “They’re eating children!!!”.
It’s no secret that mainstream cartoons are becoming more political; earlier this year, Zootropolis came loaded with social metaphors, probably more of them than its kiddie audience needed or wanted. Sausage Party is made for adults, however, so its seriousness doesn’t feel incongruous – and besides, you can’t really talk about seriousness when a villainous douche (dubbed ‘El Duce’ as his power increases) is lurking on the fringes, getting increasingly apoplectic as his tough-guy dialogue (“spill the beans”, “how d’you like them apples”) gets unwanted shout-outs from the foods in question. This is a film with food puns and a secular Message. To quote the stick of gum in a Stephen Hawking wheelchair: “Very noble, little sausage”.
DIRECTED BY Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon
WITH THE VOICES OF Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton
US 2016 89 mins