Perhaps the most charming thing about Sausage Party is that it exists in the first place.
After all, a computer-generated animated movie about foul-mouthed hyper-violent and aggressively sexual anthropomorphised food products was always going to be something of a tough sell. More than that, there was always a risk that the film’s best joke could not sustain the necessary ninety-minute runtime. “Let’s do an R-rated comedy animated in the style of a Dreamworks or Pixar film!” is very wry, but it seems like the kind of idea that brews in the early hours of the morning at a wild party and is promptly forgotten.
At one point in Sausage Party, the heroic hotdog Frank encounters a group of ancient foodstuffs hiding out in the liquor aisle of the shopping market that he calls home. These old and experience foodstuffs recall how they carefully cultivated and curated the mythology of the supermarket, building a religion that treated consumers as “gods” and which encouraged the store’s food and drink to dream of being “chosen.” There is even a hymn that the food sings every morning. A wisened old liquor bottle explains that this whole plan was the result of a massive stoner session.
In some ways, Sausage Party feels like it had a similar genesis, beginning with a goofy joke among friends that escalated and evolved into a surprisingly fleshed-out and developed world. Sausage Party works remarkably well given that it is essentially one very clever joke spread across ninety minutes, padded out with healthy doses of absurdity and puns. While the movie can occasionally feel a little indulgent and meandering, that charm carries it a long way. Sausage Party is one extended gag, but it is just about funny enough to pull it off.
“What if food were alive?” is a fairly standard premise. What if that food were anthropormorphised? What if it existed in a world where it interacted with other foods? In many ways, this is a riff on a classic children’s film motif. Given the computer-generated animation and the premise, Toy Story is the most obvious point of comparison. However, there are countless classic other such stories and characters. Indeed, the character designs in Sausage Party pay tribute to a much older example, borrowing Mickey Mouse’s white gloves and booted feet.
In recent years, computer-generated animation has made it even easier to push familiar objects into the uncanny valley. Before computer-generated imagery could convincingly replicated human hair and skill, it was more practical to imaging living toy. Now it seems to come as standard; Turbo anthropomorphises snails, Finding Nemo anthropormorphises fish, Trolls will anthropomorphise those long-haired nineties toy creatures. It’s a nice approach for family entertainment. Cute things become cuter if they can pretend to be people.
Of course, there is a black comedy in all of this. After all, for all that we imbue these inanimate objects with charming personality, there is a limit to our empathy. How many parents served up fish fingers to children who loved Finding Dory? What must children make of broken toys after investing them with humanity in Toy Story? Turbo earned over two million euro at the French box office, while escargot remains a delicacy. There is a fascinating dissonance there; if our imaginations are capable of conceiving as food and products as entities, what does that say about us?
That is in many respects the core gag of Sausage Party, which follows that train of thought to its logical conclusion. What if we imagined food to be a living thing with personality and identity? How would food react to being displayed and sold? How would food respond to the revelation that it exists to be eaten? It is a very dark joke, one that wonders what might happen if the Beast were to accidentally drop Misses Potts or what would occur if Nemo ever caught a glimpse of the inside of a sushi bar.
To be fair, there have been animated family films that have touched upon this idea in the past, most obviously those willing to cast humans as antagonists to anthroporphised animals. Chicken Run comes to mid, as does The Fantastic Mister Fox. However, there is also a sense of comfort and insulation in these family-friendly films, treating humans as monsters and never dwelling too rigorously upon the logic of the situation. Indeed, even more than its sophomoric vulgarity, it is this rigorous application of logic that defines Sausage Party.
There is a surprising attention to detail in Sausage Party, with a great deal of attention paid to the workings of its internal logic. Whereas films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story remain relatively abstract about the relationship between the anthropomorphised characters and the human inhabitants of the world, Sausage Party takes great care to develop these ideas. What does it look like to human characters when these food stuffs are running around? Is it possible for human characters to interact with these food characters?
For a comedy that takes such pride in its low brow humour, a lot of the charm in Sausage Party comes from overthinking it, from following certain conventions of animated films to their logical conclusions. Little baby carrots running from a massacre become two stray vegetables idly rolling off the edge of a table. Drug use becomes a window for human characters to peer beyond their mundane (and desaturated) reality into a more vibrant and animated world. Indeed, the movie’s closing moments carry this self-awareness to its pinnacle.
The level of care put into the world of Sausage Party is remarkable, a large part of what makes the film so charming. The script is stuffed with clever allusions and riffs, from the crass to the cheesy to the just plain absurd. The movie’s primary antagonist is a literal juiced-up douche. When Craig Robinson is introduced as a cracker-hating box of grits, he insists, “They call me Mister Grits.” Two of the movie’s most endearing supporting characters include a bagel named Sammy Bagel Junior and a lavash named Kareem Abdul Lavash who have been forced to share an aisle.
As those character descriptions imply, Sausage Party tends to draw on some very broad stereotypes when it comes to characterising its food products. In some respects, it feels like Sausage Party is very much trying to have its cake and eat it with these national (and racial) caricatures. After all, the type of marketing employed for these sorts of products very clearly hinges on cultural appropriation; one of the movie’s more subtle and wry observations concerns just how much of American consumerism (especially alcohol) leans on Native American iconography.
However, it is difficult to tell when Sausage Party is subversively riffing on the crass broad strokes of marketing and animation, or when it is indulging earnestly in those same generalisations. A layer of irony protects the film, but there are moments when it seems like Sausage Party feels a little too broadly drawn, when it goes for the cheapest and the easiest of laughs. The film offers characters like Sammy Bagel Junior and Kareem Abdul Lavash enough space that the joke becomes nuanced. In contrast, a stereotypical character like Tequila feels a little obvious.
Similarly, Sausage Party struggles a little bit with its big central theme. The film is largely about riffing on the trappings and formula of family-friendly animated entertainment, and part of that means structuring the film as a “message” with an important moral core. Sausage Fest chooses to engage with religion as its core theme and idea, with Frank coming to accept that humanity are not “gods” and that everything that he has been taught is part of an elaborate lie to placate and appease food stuffs.
Sausage Party effectively plays as an endorsement of atheism, with a level of subtlety that recalls The Invention of Lying. The film is broad in its criticisms of organised religion, endorsing the idea that atheism is the logical conclusion of rational thought. Although Frank rightly comes under fire at the climax of the film for being insensitive and dismissive of others’ beliefs at the end of the film, Sausage Party never suggests that Frank needs to learn to respect the spiritual beliefs of others.
Instead, Sausage Party‘s big moral is that Frank has to pretend to be respectful long enough to convince them that he is entirely and objectively right. Again, it is difficult to tell just how ironic Sausage Party is meant to be in these moments, how much of this central theme and character logic is a parody of the simplistic binary moral logic that tends to drive family films. There are points at which Sausage Party feels frustratingly heavy-handed, losing sight of charm that sells the movie’s best jokes – and which excuses some of its weaker gags.
Still, there is enough absurdity to make Sausage Party an engaging watch. There is a commitment to the gag that is oddly endearing, a sense that Sausage Party has been carefully cultivated and developed from an idle joke in the last dying hours of a fading party to a fully fleshed-out feature film. It is bizarre and absurd, in a way that excuses its weaker elements and its questionable choices.