For something steeped in the juvenile directness of puns and body humor, there is an enigmatic heart to the new "Sausage Party," an R-rated animated film from the sweetly filthy minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Does it want to be a dirty movie or theological treatise?
But first, a warning. Without making presumptions about the particulars of specific children or families, do not mistake "Sausage Party" for a kids' film, regardless of how cute the advertising may appear. The makers of the movie proudly proclaim it the first R-rated computer-animated comedy, and it is certainly more in league with the salty adults-only satires of Ralph Bakshi than it is typical family friendly animated fare.
Introduced largely in a song with music by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, here's the premise: All the food in a supermarket believe that the human beings who pull them from the shelves are gods taking them to a joyous great beyond. A few clues begin to lead a sausage named Frank (Rogen) to think that perhaps that isn't so, and he sets out on an adventure to discover the truth. As he learns of the horrors that truly await them, he tries to mobilize his friends and colleagues to action.
Ideas of belief, community and the nature of the world were also explored in "This Is the End," the live-action comedy written and directed by Rogen and Goldberg. There, people were saved during an apocalyptic rapture by acts of selfless kindness – narcissistic Hollywood actors were, of course, left behind. (Perhaps, someday, a theology dissertation will be written on conceptions of the afterlife in the comedies of Rogen and Goldberg.)
Their new movie is somewhat undone by the eternal paradox of the smart-dumb comedy: It is too often not enough of one or the other. The film is not quite smart enough to overcome the clichés and stereotypes it acknowledges but can't entirely dismantle. At the same time, it often isn't quite outrageous enough, as if it should be more willing to be outright offensive. So much of "Sausage Party" ends up slightly soft-boiled, pleasant and harmless, rather than dangerous and disturbing.
As in their scripts for films like "Superbad" and the ill-fated "The Interview," Rogen and Goldberg aim to both revel in and critique male behavior – subverting bro-ish boorishness in a manner that can be easily mistaken for the very thing it is attempting to tear apart. And here, starting with the pun of the title itself, they look to do the same. The film's villain is even a pushy, rude, juiced-up douche. (No, really, it's a feminine-hygiene product jacked-up on fruit juice).
Much of the main cast of "This Is the End" is back for "Sausage Party" as well, with Rogen, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Paul Rudd, David Krumholtz and Danny McBride all providing voices. New this time out are Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Nick Kroll, Anders Holm and Bill Hader.
Wiig and Cera in particular give remarkably vivid voice performances, with Wiig as Frank's girlfriend Brenda, an anxious bun hoping they will finally be together, and Cera as a misshapen sausage named Barry given a chance to be a hero. Hayek also has fun as a taco with lusty designs on Brenda's soft curves, while one has to wonder how long Norton has wanted to do his extended Woody Allen impression as a bagel. The film sets itself up as an equal opportunity offender, or rather it plays with cartoonish stereotypes of ethnicity in a manner akin to those still found on some supermarket food labels.
Animation veterans Conrad Vernon ("Shrek 2") and Greg Tiernan ("Thomas & Friends") co-directed the film, which has a bright look about it, and the screenplay loaded with raw language and rapid-fire jokes is credited to Rogen and Goldberg, along with Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir.
The movie's final third is a rudely uproarious joy, as the denizens of the market rise up against their human opponents and later plunge into an outright orgy that features shocking, shocking imagery that simply cannot be unseen. (I for one may never look at a radish the same way again.) The battle-turned-bacchanal seems to be in essence the film's reason to exist, as if a vivid bit of late-night stoner imagination demanded to be brought into the world.
And yet, at a moment when news from our actual world so often seems a nightmare parody of itself and reality like some shared hallucination, there is sweet balm in seeing a bagel and a lavash overcome their differences to find mutual pleasure in one another. That their truce quickly veers into sex acts not simply unprintable but frankly indescribable is then not only a comic delight but also an unlikely beacon of hope.
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Running time: 1 hour and 29 minutes
MPAA rating: R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language and drug use.
In wide release.