Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Processed Food: Animated Comedy Sausage Party

Sausage Party features the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill.

When the trailer for Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s computer animated comedy Sausage Party was accidentally played before a screening of Disney/Pixar’s family-friendly fish film, Finding Dory, the gaff reportedly “made star [Seth Rogen’s] day.” Truthfully, it made mine too. It’s easy to see how Sausage Party’s cartoony hot dogs, grinning veggies, and bright-eyed baked goods could be mistaken for the heroes of a children’s film if one wasn’t paying attention but, to be clear: this ballsy comedy written by a seven-man team that includes Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill is only fun for kids 18 and up.

Main character Frank (Rogen), is a mild-mannered, mild-spiced sausage living in a pack with nine of his closest buddies on a BBQ-themed 4th of July display at Shopwell’s grocery store. Every morning Frank joins the other foods in a song dedicated to “The Gods,” the human shoppers that arrive daily and, if the foods are well-behaved and worthy, purchase them and cart them off to “the Great Beyond,” a fabled afterlife where Frank can finally place himself where he belongs: inside of girlfriend, Brenda Bun (Kristin Wiig). Naturally, every food aisle has a different interpretation of what happens in "The Great Beyond" but the foods are unanimously “super sure there's nothing shitty waiting for [them],” as expressed in their charming ensemble number composed by Alan Menken. On the day Frank, Brenda, and their package-mates are “chosen” to voyage to "The Great Beyond," they encounter a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) that shakes their unwavering faith. Honey Mustard was purchased by accident and, upon being exchanged by a customer for yellow mustard, returns to Shopwell’s with horror stories of what really happens to food after it leaves the store. As he ends his weird, sugary/mustardy existence by diving from the cart onto the tile floor below, Honey Mustard ultimately causes an accident that foreshadows the carnage yet to come: flour explodes everywhere, Peanut Butter smears his dead Jam wife’s innards all over his face in a demonstration of inconsolable grief, and a small Oreo picks up his back cookie in a daze. As the rest of the groceries are purchased, Brenda and Frank find themselves separated from their packages and forced to find their way home through the expansive, unfamiliar aisles.

The “food gore” is what sold me on this film when I first caught the trailer. Something about watching the cutesy Pixar-like characters being slaughtered in vivid detail is profoundly satisfying, allowing the warped minds of the animators and writers behind the project to take centre stage in several onslaughts of absolutely adorable horror. Watching a can of spaghetti riffle through his exposed noodles with a glazed expression ticked every box in my humour checklist: it was messed up, creative, and amplified by the silliness of the medium. If the same effort and energy had been applied to the rest of the film’s writing, Sausage Party could have easily been my favourite film this year – I’m so disappointed to say that it wasn’t.

If there’s anything I believe in, it’s comedy’s power for social criticism. A good joke has the ability to promote discussion. If it's observant, it can call attention to overlooked patterns and tropes we encounter in our day to day lives, often ones that we might not see or are unable to articulate. In my personal brand of humour, few subjects are off-limits if a joke is new, smart, and well-executed. Sausage Party is upfront about its identity as a raunchy comedy: it’s saturated with jokes about sex, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. The film has received lofty praise from critics for using the idea of “The Great Beyond” to critique religion and blind faith. The foods all believe in the same overarching myth but feud about its finer details, largely shunning reason in favour of comfortable ignorance. Critical thinking and a rational agnosticism are both ideas I strongly support and using comedy to promote them seems ingenious – but, in its execution, Sausage Party trips over its own lack of inhibitions. It’s a thinly veiled allegory spelling out its message in neon block letters without contributing anything new to the discussion. It says that religion is dumb, fighting about it is silly, and we should all look the grim truth in the face instead of sticking our heads in the sand, before the movie bypasses any opportunity for doubt or ambiguity by jamming in a last-minute, fourth-wall breaking, deus ex machina ending where the protagonist foods are informed that they’re cartoons and subsequently introduced to their voice actors. Bearing in mind who Sausage Party’s target audience is, are these not already presumed conclusions? Are these ideas, presented without question or conjecture, still novel? For this liberal agnostic, Sausage Party’s blunt stab at philosophy felt masturbatory and self-righteous, like its writers were informing me that the world is round.

Smaller gags fall victim to the same ham-fistedness. Frank and Brenda Bun are accompanied by a bagel named Sammie (Ed Norton) and a Lavash named Kareem (David Krumholtz) who occupy stereotypical Jewish and Middle-Eastern character slots respectively. Here, the film becomes cringe-worthy as the writers hit on all the obvious racial gags: the bagel whines, the Lavash treats women like animals, both find common ground in their friendship with Hummus. Bagel and Lavash create a pantomime of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, arguing about how they shouldn’t have to share an aisle; Frank tells them he doesn’t understand the issue and that the aisle seems big enough for them both. Cue laughter for the Western audience that can’t believe no one in the West Bank has thought of that yet. Less reprehensible but equally unfunny is the running gag about Brenda and Frank “touching tips” by reaching out of their packages to touch their fingers together. For some reason, Kristin Wiig even sings a weird ad-libbed song about this on several occasions. I don’t know why.

While I don’t share in the belief that Sausage Party is the nuanced and brilliant socioreligious critique that other people seem to think it is, it wasn’t all bad. I applaud the film for wrapping up in a bizarre and genuinely unexpected way after a barrage of predictable humour. Also, briefly putting aside the reports of unethical working conditions for the movie’s animators at Nitrogen Studios (remember, you can’t spell Nitrogen without “Rogen”), the animation was a well-executed mimicry of Pixar’s animated fare with facial expressions that were comedic gold and some not-so-bad looking textures to boot (Lavash’s papery flat-bread aesthetic in particular did, indeed, leave me wanting to slather his “flaps” in the “72 bottles of extra virgin olive oil” that he prayed for)! Ultimately, the A-list voice actors, expensive soundtrack (you better believe Meatloaf makes an appearance), and playful visual gags make Sausage Party worth downloading from iTunes somewhere down the road even if its social criticism doesn’t offer much food for thought.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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