Movie Review: Sausage Party
By Ben Gruchow
August 22, 2016

Hello, we're the cliche brothers!

Way back in early 2010, a horror/sci-fi/action movie named Daybreakers was released. Walking out of the theater, I thought that the ’aughts-era moviegoing audience now had their very own Blade: both movies were similarly sleek and Euro-trashy in their imagined worlds, with common thematic threads and indie-minded creative teams just getting to stretch their muscles on a studio budget. Daybreakers never materialized a franchise the way that Blade did, for some reason; the universe wasn’t as high-concept, maybe, or audience and genre affections had just changed that much.

Walking out of Sausage Party, I thought to myself something similar: 2010s-era moviegoing audiences now have their own South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. And it is here that I’m able to gain some perspective on the earlier pair of films. These two are similar examples of utilizing mundane scenarios to spark a little political satire; in South Park it was an over-the-top R-rated cartoon to land attacks on the MPAA and on overreactive parenting, while Sausage Party crafts a mythical “beyond” for its cast of supermarket-product characters as a rather open-ended way to approach concepts of using optimism and pessimism to keep society stable. And they express these stories using the innocuous vehicle of animation - similarly primitive animation, at that. Perhaps if animated films for adults ever gain the toehold in North America that they have elsewhere, the move of utilizing a normally family-friendly medium to make a very family-unfriendly film will become less surprising.

The big difference between the earlier set of films and these two, though, is that Daybreakers didn’t have an ongoing incarnation of its spiritual predecessor to deal with; the Blade series had already flamed out quite conclusively half a decade prior. Sausage Party has to contend not only with the still-running South Park TV series, which continues to plumb newer and riskier ways to express itself, but with an entire TV industry of animated-for-adults satire that’s hardly any less bold than the theoretically greater creative freedom that the theater and an R rating grants you. All of which is a tremendously circuitous way to say that Sausage Party is notable mostly for being a shocking R-rated satire, and it is neither shocking nor very trenchant in its satire.

Put even more simply, it’s trite and boring and a lot less edgy than it thinks it is. It’s also ugly to look at, although that’s a sin that only becomes relevant once we factor in the movie’s other failings. The story takes place over a 24-hour period in the lives of various products in a supermarket called Shopwell. Every morning the store opens up, the store products - from produce to dry goods to poultry - break out in a song about the Great Beyond, that place where “chosen” food goes when it’s picked out by the “gods” that roam their world. The day in question this time is the 4th of July, when just about everyone is chosen. Our main characters are Frank (Seth Rogen) and Brenda (Kristen Wiig). Frank is a hot dog, Brenda is a hot dog bun, and the two have been placed next to each other over the course of what we assume is a lifespan of several days.

Their respective packs are indeed chosen, but the journey to the Great Beyond is interrupted by a jar of returned honey mustard, who’s been to the Beyond and has been driven mad by the horrors he’s witnessed. He derails the cart, Frank and Brenda are left behind while the other items in the cart get to leave, and then we follow them through the market over the course of a night as they discover the true nature of the world, the “gods”, and their relationship to them.

This much is absolutely true about Sausage Party: it is a crystal-clear example of something that could be achieved in no other universe but animation. The writers consist of Rogen, Jonah Hill (also playing another hot dog) and Evan Goldberg, and their story and humor sensibilities are old hat by now. This movie is really nothing more than an indirect sequel to their 2013 This Is the End on a narrative level: like in that film, a bunch of innocuous friends and acquaintances are confronted by the specter of something big and supernatural (to them), and most of what we see are informal reactions, possibly ad-libbed, pitched at the level of a stoned twentysomething. This particular incarnation of the story, though, would be impossible to tell in live action. By resorting to CGI, Rogen and Goldberg and Hill, and directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, enable an aesthetic that is at least in theory totally new - and I learn from the movie’s Wikipedia page that this is the first CGI-animated film to ever be rated R.

It’s not a successful pioneer on that front, I’d argue; rating aside, we have progressed to the point where there really isn’t a “type” of film that we haven’t seen realized by the best of what computer animation can do; a movie that is limited in its budget, like this one was, may provide us with a legitimate reason why something does not look up to the level of its contemporaries, but it does not mean the movie must be excused on those grounds. And does Sausage Party ever look like something that came out sometime in 1997: when an all-CGI movie had some kind of precedent, without anyone outside of Pixar having any real idea what to do with the technology. The surfaces in this movie are slick, smooth, untextured, and rubbery. Character expressions *do* hold to a model; we are at least nowhere near the melting-wax consistency of the horrors from Foodfight!, but we’re still talking about onscreen participants who may as well have been plucked from a “Living Food” 3D Animation software pack and simply manipulated, rather than personalized in any way.

This is pretty destructive when the performers behind the onscreen characters are people with voices as distinctive as Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but there’s a whole cavalcade of talent at work here, and most of the movie works hard at anonymizing all of them through the blandness of the screenplay anyway. Wiig is one of the most talented comic actresses of her generation, and yet Brenda is such a mirthless placeholder of a character that it took me until the end credits to realize who vocalized her. As the list of names keeps popping up, the thought kept occurring to me: there was no need to cast Paul Rudd, or Edward Norton, or Michael Cera, or James Franco, because none of the characters make any kind of real impression other than the one generated by the familiarity of this group of performers re-teaming.

That’s really what there is to take away from Sausage Party: it’s the same creative team behind This Is The End, joining up with the same cast from This Is The End, to make a movie that’s more or less just like This Is The End except in animated form, with superficially different plot machinations. If this is what you’re looking for, this is what you’ll get. Myself, I’m invested in the comic talent of the people here, but positively blasé about the retread nature of the work here. Everyone involved has made at least one smarter, funnier film in the last couple of years, and this feels like a big step back.