The critics have reached something of a rare consensus: Sausage Party, the R-rated animated movie from the Seth Rogen crew, is funny, disgusting and to quote The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “full of… thought.” USA Today calls it “smart,” Business Insider says it’s “about something deep,” and the Chicago Tribune says it has a “legitimate interest in theological debate.” As the directors themselves told MEL, “This movie explores deeper themes.”
They are wrong.
To be fair, if you like puns, there are some good puns in Sausage Party. If you like animated violence, there is some very funny animated violence in the movie, too. And if you’ve ever wondered what Caligula would have looked like with animated food in the place of Romans, this movie has a long, graphic cartoon food orgy just for you.
But calling the half-baked social commentary in Sausage Party “smart” is like calling a half-frozen pack of hot dogs “dinner.” It’s inaccurate, unhealthy and seriously sad.
Here’s the story — the one that A.O. Scott says might inspire a debate about “whether the film is a Christopher Hitchens-style atheist polemic or a more pragmatic, William Jamesian exploration of the varieties of religious experience.”
The animated food characters in Sausage Party live in a supermarket, and they all believe that to be bought and taken home by a human, or “god,” is to be taken to a paradisiac “Great Beyond.” The foodstuffs live in fear of offending these gods, and follow repressive sexual codes and other superstitious practices (such as “staying in their packaging”) to ensure their salvation.
This leads to the (legitimately funny, and included in the trailer) horrific reveal that these gods actually eat the food once they leave the store. Clued in by a jar of mustard who’s returned from the carnage of the real world (voiced by Danny McBride), the main hot dog character, Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen), starts to piece together the truth. Eventually, after facing willful ignorance and some violent resistance, he convinces the deluded food in the store that their “Great Beyond” is a lie, then helps stage a bloody rebellion.
According to A.O. Scott, this “traces the dialectic of enlightenment in the life of a skeptical sausage.” That’s Frank, who is “a Promethean figure” in a movie that “focuses on the disruptive and liberating consequences of scientific thought.” Scott goes on to call this “nuanced meditation on theology and faith” a “philosophical challenge” to the cozier world of Toy Story.
Let’s look at this dialectic of enlightenment, this nuanced meditation. Frank is told by a pot of mustard that the gods actually eat food. A seed of doubt is planted. Then he finds a Native American bottle of firewater (voiced by Bill Hader), who tells him that yes, the gods actually eat food, and he, along with some other imperishable foods — a Blaxploitation box of grits (Craig Robinson) and a fey Twinkie (Scott Underwood) — invented the story to placate the population of the store, which had previously lived in constant terror.
Reminds you of Voltaire, right? And that time his neighbor came back from the dead and told him that God in fact digs up dead bodies and eats them for dinner, which prompted a visit to the Pope, who then revealed that yes, Voltaire’s suspicions were correct: God is just a monster who eats people.
Or even Galileo, who looked up into the heavens to see that yes, in fact, God, whom he regularly encountered lumbering through the streets of Padua, choosing people for Paradise, had a whole kitchen up there in the sky in which He peeled us, chopped us up, and then simmered us for hours to make a divine pasta sauce. Then Galileo, remember what he did? He went right up to God and chopped his head off!
You can practically taste the nuance.
Sausage Party replaces actual thinking with the false impression of being in the vicinity of thought. Like a Paulo Coelho book, or Donald Trump’s puckered face, or, most accurately, a conversation between two faded dudes on the rise of ISIS, it mistakes saying something in a serious tone of voice for having something serious to say. Religion sure is weird. Politics sure are complicated. Wake up, sheeple.
And why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians just get along? The two supporting foodstuffs with the largest roles in Sausage Party are Sammy Bagel, Jr., a bagel voiced by Edward Norton doing a Woody Allen impression, and Vash, a vaguely Draculan piece of lavash bread voiced by David Krumholz. From the moment they meet, the two argue over the Jewish foods’ occupation of the Arab food aisle, complete with jokes about settlements, hummus and “the West Shelf.”
At one point Frank the hot dog, weary of the bickering pair, suggests they share the aisle peaceably. Later on, once the “gods” are all dead, Vash and Sammy put their differences aside and kick off the orgy with some gleeful, acrobatic sex.
Wouldn’t that be rad? If the Israelis and Palestinians just stopped being mean to each other and started… fucking? As far as I can tell, that’s the extent of the movie’s commentary on the Middle East.
It’s hard to say why A.O. Scott and his critical peers might have mistaken this thinky pose for the real thing. It’s August, I guess. It’s hot out. And it is surprising that Sausage Party went all-in on “social commentary” — that’s worth mentioning in a review, and sometimes, especially on deadline, when a vacation house beckons, one just gets carried away. Sure, make it a Critic’s Pick! Seeya Tuesday!
But the larger question is why, in the absence of anything to say, did Rogen and Co. decide to go all in with an Israel-Palestine subplot? And, come to think of it, why did Rogen and Co. decide to write, animate and voice an Epcot Center of broad racial stereotypes, like the Blaxploitation box of grits, the “loco” bottle of tequila (Bill Hader, again), Salma Hayek’s spicy taco, the bustling street of anonymous slant-eyed soy sauces, the proposed character of a cognac bottle played by Diddy, and on, and on, and on?
You could argue that they were trying to bring back the zany, lightly political spirit of old Mel Brooks movies and combine that with a filthy Pixar parody, but just lost the thread along the way. You could argue that animation, by distancing the jokes from the schlubby bodies of the Rogen crew, allowed them to be harsher, meaner, and dumber in a way that we would forgive if we saw their sad-sack faces on screen. You could even argue that they’re just lazy goofballs, funning around to see what works.
But then you, just like the many critics praising this movie, would also be wrong. The filmmakers spent 10 years making this movie. That’s a decade of testing, a decade of writing, a decade in which they could have made any other decisions.
So, based on the evidence, they made these choices on purpose because they thought they were good, smart choices. Which means that they have so cocooned themselves in layers of yes-bros that not a single person came along in the past 10 years, heard what was happening, and told them:
“Hey, this is a funny basic concept — food doesn’t know we eat it, then it freaks out — but almost everything else here is a bad idea. Why don’t you think of some other stuff? Or at least think a little harder about it. Before you spend millions of dollars, and years of talented animators’ time, making this.”