Thursday, August 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Sausage Party

Welcome to the tail end of Summer Movie Slaughter 2016, as the last of the season's big tentpole pictures crash and burn on arrival. It's been a brutal summer to be sure, filled with flops, implosions and all around disappointments. Other than Captain America: Civil WarFinding Dory and The Secret Life Of Pets, I don't think any film this summer could be considered a hit, as the majority of them were DOA and lost their respective studios millions.

Sausage Party was written by Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (wow, it took a whopping FOUR people to write a screenplay about a talking hot dog?). It was directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon.

Hunter and Shaffir previously wrote the Seth Rogen vehicle The Night Before. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are a prolific writing team, who previously penned Superbad, Pineapple Express, The Green Hornet, The Watch and This Is The End.

Tiernan previously directed Hero Of The Rails, which— get this— was the first Thomas The Tank Engine home video feature to use CGI animation instead of the usual scale models and sets. Wow! From the family-friendly world of Thomas to cursing, fornicating hot dogs! Vernon previously co-directed Shrek 2 and directed Monsters Vs. Aliens and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. Talk about strange bedfellows!

Sausage Party is rude, vulgar, racist and offensive. It also has quite a thoughtful and provocative message about religion, and how it ruins rules our lives. Wow. Who knew Seth Rogen would turn out to be a visionary filmmaker?

The film was made for a shockingly low $19 million, which is nothing short of miraculous these days. To put that amount in perspective, Finding Dory had a production budget of $200 million, while The Secret Life Of Pets cost $75 million. Heck, Pixar probably spent more than $19 million on coffee for their animators.

Unfortunately it looks like the movie's low price tag may have been the result of brutal and unfair working conditions on the part of Nitrogen Studios, which produced Sausage Party. Shortly after the film premiered there were allegations that  the studio forced their army of animators to work overtime for free. According to anonymous sources, if any animators refused, they were either reassigned or terminated. Supposedly over thirty animators left the production due to the conditions at the studio, and their names were removed from the final credits. Sadly, things like this go on all the time in the animation industry.

Seth Rogen seems like a genuinely decent guy, so I hope he was ignorant of this alleged abuse, and didn't knowingly go along with it just to get his film made under budget.

A couple of weeks ago I predicted that there'd be a huge outcry from angry Soccer Moms who cluelessly took their precious underaged snowflakes to see this hard R-rated movie, thinking it was just another family-friendly animated film. Amazingly I've not heard any reports of that happening.

My local cineplexery had numerous warning signs posted, alerting parents that Sausage Party was most definitely NOT for kids, so maybe they were able to preempt any problems before they arose. There wasn't a single kid in the audience at my screening of the film. Actually there weren't many people of any age there, but that's another story.


The Plot:
"In a world, where food is alive…" Eh, let's start over. The film takes place primarily inside the Shopwell's grocery store, where all the various foods and products are alive. The foods believe the human shoppers are Gods, who appear every day to select them and take them out of the store into "The Great Beyond."

Somewhere in the store, a sausage named Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen), who lives in a package with seven of his fellow processed meat tubes, is in love with a bun named Brenda (voiced by Kristin Wiig). Frank dreams of living in The Great Beyond with Brenda, and is confident they'll be selected by the Gods during the upcoming July 4th Sale.

A jar of Honey Mustard, who was previously selected, is returned to the store by a God. Honey Mustard is shaken to his core by what he saw outside the store, and tells the others that The Great Beyond is a bald-faced lie. The other foods are so delusional, er, I mean confident in their faith that they refuse to believe him.

Frank and Brenda are ecstatic when their packages (heh) are selected by a God and placed in a grocery cart. Honey Mustard, who can't take it anymore, kills himself by leaping from the cart and smashing onto the floor below. The cart slides through the mustard and crashes into another one. The impact throws Frank and Brenda out of their cart, along with a lavash (similar to a pita bread) named Kareem, a bagel named Sammy, and a feminine hygiene douche named, er, Douche (who by the way, is a male "bro" type— get it? He's literally and figuratively a douche).

Frank and the others try to catch up with the God's cart, but they lose sight of it in the confusion. Douche, whose nozzle is bent, is swept up by a human store employee named Darren, who throws him in the trash. Douche blames Frank for causing him to miss out on the Great Beyond, and vows revenge.

As the store closes for the night, the other foods try to make it back to their aisles. Along the way they hear what sounds like a party coming from the liquor aisle (natch), and Frank suggests they check it out. There they encounter Firewater, a Native American bottle of booze, along with several other older, "non perishable" foods. 

Firewater tells Frank the horrible truth— there is no Great Beyond, and the Gods are actually hungry humans, who kill and eat the foods they choose. Firewater reveals that years ago the foods all knew the truth, but he made up the story of the Gods and The Great Beyond to calm their fears. Frank refuses to believe the story, but an effeminate Twinkie named— what else, Twink— tells him to visit the Shopwell's freezer section for proof.

While Frank's having his mind blown, Brenda meets a taco named Terasa (voiced by Salma Hayek), who takes a lusty interest in her. In the back room, Douche escapes from the trash, and is shocked to discover all his fluid has leaked out. He manages to survive by filling his body with various liquids from other discarded foods. Now "juiced," he goes totally off the deep end and begins searching for Frank.

Meanwhile, Frank and Brenda's friends, who were previously chosen, arrive at the home of the God who purchased them. They're horrified to see the God kill, cook and eat their comrades, in a scene of R-rated, unbridled carnage and violence. 

Another sausage named Barry (voiced by Michael Cera) escapes the human's house and enters the outside world. He sees a human carrying a Shopwell's bag and grabs on, hoping to be taken back to the store. Unfortunately, the human is a junkie who takes him back to his disheveled home.

Inside the Junkie's house, Barry meets various snack foods, including a bag of chips and a very Stephen Hawking-like wad of discarded gum, who rides around in a makeshift wheelchair. The Junkie injects himself with bath salts, which alters his perception and allows him to "see" that the foods in his home are alive. Barry tries to talk with the Junkie, who thinks he's just hallucinating. When the drugs wear off, the Junkie grabs Barry and tries to cook him. Barry jumps out of the pot, and the Junkie trips, knocks a decorative axe off the wall and decapitates himself (!). Barry talks Gum and the others into accompanying him to Shopwell's.

Back at the store, Frank tells Brenda and the others that he's going to the freezer section for answers. Brenda doesn't want him to go, saying he's going to anger the Gods by doubting them and asking too many questions. They argue, break up and go their separate ways. Brenda sneaks into another bag of buns, hoping to be chosen again.

Frank travels to the frozen section, where he finds a cookbook. He leafs through it and is horrified to find it's filled with pages of humans massacring food. He tears out several pages and holds them up to the security cameras to broadcast them to the entire store. He tells everyone the Gods and The Great Beyond aren't real, and they're all idiots for believing in them. The foods don't take kindly to having their lifelong beliefs ridiculed, and reject Frank's proof.

The store opens again, and Brenda's chosen a second time. Just then Barry and his new friends return to the store. Barry confirms that the shoppers are false gods, and can be killed. As proof, he shows them the Junkie's decapitated head (!). Frank gives a second speech to the store, apologizing for not respecting the others' beliefs. This time they rally around him.

Barry and Gum fire then fire bath salt-laden toothpicks at the shoppers. As the drug takes effect, the shoppers see the talking foods and predictably freak out. A huge battle takes place, as the foods begin fighting back against the shoppers. Frank manages to rescue Brenda in the confusion. Douche appears, and takes control of Darren by shoving his nozzle up his ass and working him like a Japanese mecha.

Eventually the shoppers are all killed, along with Douche/Darren. With the store rid of the false Gods, the foods all engage in a massive, R-rated orgy (!).

At the end of the film, Gum announces that he and Firewater have discovered that their entire universe is an artificial construct and they're all fictional characters, created for the amusement of humans. Gum builds a Stargate, er, I mean a dimensional portal that will allow them to travel to this dimension. Frank and the others enter the portal to confront their creators.

It's probably pointless to nitpick a film like this since it's a cartoon fantasy. I will endeavor to do my best though.

• Sausage Party is a very odd film. It contains a ton of food-based puns and jokes, EXACTLY like you'd find in a Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks film. In fact if it weren't for all the R-rated language, violence, sex and anti-religious stuff, it could very well be a standard CGI kid's movie.

Maybe that's what the filmmakers were going for? Making the movie seem as much like a kiddie cartoon as possible, so it'd be all the more shocking when the R-rated material kicked in?

• Like most cartoon fantasies, the world of this film doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Heck, even Toy Story, the gold standard of CGI animated films, has some pretty shaky logic. Think about it— Buzz Lightyear truly believes he's a human when he first arrives, yet whenever Andy enters the room, he falls over and acts like an inanimate object, like Woody and all the other toys. Why would he do that if he believed he was real?

Likewise, the rules in Sausage Party seem to make sense at first, but if think about them for a while, you'll say, "Hey, wait a minute…"

For example: In addition to the thousands of types of talking foods, we also see a few sentient non-edible items, such as a douche, a used condom (!) and a roll of toilet paper. 

So just how is intelligence doled out in this universe? Obviously everything isn't self-aware. The shopping carts aren't alive, and we don't see any talking cars or lamps. Maybe only items that are consumed or used on the human body have intelligence?

• Another thing that doesn't quite make sense: The foods all worship the "Gods" and believe in "The Great Beyond," except when they don't. For example, Kareem seems to be Muslim, while Sammy is obviously a Jew. Sammy even lives in the Kosher section of the store!

Do the foods believe in their respective ethic deities and the Human Gods at the same time?

• Yet another example of things that are off in this world: Based on their dialogue, the foods inside Shopwell's all act as if they've been living there for months, if not years. But that can't be— the produce would all get tossed out after a day or two if not "chosen," and Frank and Brenda couldn't possibly have been in the store for much more than a week. Maybe time passes more slowly for food, and they feel like they've been alive for years?

As I said, I realize this is a fantasy, so I don't really expect the filmmakers to work out every minute detail, and it doesn't detract from the story. I just thought I'd mention it.

• At the risk of sounding like a Brittle Soccer Mom, I thought the cursing in the film was way over the top. Obviously it was done for the shock value of seeing an animated character spout F-bombs and C-words, but after the thousandth time, the effect was a bit dulled. 

There were times when it seemed like the dialogue went out of its way just to include a curse. I wasn't offended by it, but after a while it was like being bludgeoned in the head by the sheer amount of cursing. It felt like a little kid learning a new cuss word, and then immediately using it as much as humanly possible.

• The aftermath of the shopping cart crash is an homage to the "Storming The Beach" scene in Saving Private Ryan. We see lots of carnage in the aftermath of the crash, like a burst can of spaghetti trying to scoop his "guts" back in, a jar of peanut butter cradling a dead jar of jelly, and a shellshocked Oreo cookie searching through the rubble for his back half that's been blown off.

If only there were more clever scenes like this in the film...

• There's quite a bit of stereotypical racial and ethnic humor in the film. There's the Firewater character who's Native American, an African-American box of grits, and a Twinkie who's gay. There are also Asian-accented bottles of soy sauce, Mexican salsa bottles, and Nazi bratwursts who want to eliminate the Juices (get it?). 

Given the Politically Correct Hellscape that passes for our current society, I'm very, very surprised that no one's complained about this. The film doesn't play favorites— it seems to insult and make fun of virtually everyone equally. Maybe that's the secret? When you go after everyone, no one's offended?

• I'm not a fan of the character design in the film, as most of it looked simplistic and cheap. It looked like the animators just slapped eyes and a mouth on various grocery items and called it a day.

On the other hand, there's probably really only one way to design a talking sausage.

I thought the hot dog buns in particular were very off-putting. I think the problem was their vertical mouths— that never looks right. And yes, I'm aware of what the buns' slit-mouths were supposed to look like. That doesn't make it good character design though.

• Speaking of character design— when the Junkie ingests the bath salts, he's suddenly able to see and hear the various foods in his home for the first time. I liked that he mentioned they were all wearing little white gloves and shoes! How did that ever become the standard in cartoons? Nearly every old school cartoon character wore white gloves!

• As I mentioned earlier, the film features a surprisingly insightful look at religion, atheism and blind zealotry. 

Firewater admits to Frank that he made up the entire Shopwell's religion to help calm the various foods and quell their fears. What he didn't expect though was for some of the foods— like the Nazi ones— to add to the religion and pervert it for their own ends. That's a pretty sophisticated concept for a sophomoric cartoon about talking food!

Frank then offers proof that the Gods and The Great Beyond are fake, and tells all the foods in the store that they're idiots for believing. Predictably, the foods don't take kindly to being called morons, and reject his proof. I see this in the real world all the time, as atheists can be just as smug and zealous in their outlook as the faithful are in their beliefs.

The film's correct here— you can't just call someone an idiot for believing in something you don't, and then expect them to come around to your way of thinking. The best you can do is believe what you think is best, and try to be respectful of others.

I was definitely not expecting any kind of thought provoking message like that, especially in a movie about cursing hot dogs.

• After the foods reject Frank's proof, he apologizes and says he was wrong to ridicule them. He then says their beliefs are all valid, and they need to work together to defeat the Gods. Amazingly, the foods all agree with him and attack!

Well, that was certainly easy! One second the foods view humans as literal Gods, the next they're killing them with wild abandon.

• In the third act, Barry and his new friends shoot toothpicks coated with bath salts into the Shopwell's shoppers. So where'd Barry get more bath salts? 
When we first see the Junkie, he buys a tiny little bag of salts from a dealer, and it looks like he used it all when he dosed himself. The drug isn't really made of bath salts, so where'd Barry and his pals get more? Did they visit the dealer? Or did Gum show them how to whip up more?

This is another one of those things you shouldn't think about too much.

• I liked the film overall, but I have to say I absolutely hated the Stargate ending, in which Frank and the others presumably travel to our dimension to meet the makers of the movie. I felt that went one step too far, and it came close to ruining the movie for me. It's almost like they couldn't think of an ending, so they just stuck that scene in there. Better to have ended it a minute or two sooner.

I have a feeling this scene was grafted onto the ending to set up a potential sequel, as Frank and the others travel to our world, looking for Seth Rogen and demanding answers. Look for Sausage Party: The Real World in a year or two.

Sausage Party is crude, tasteless and outrageous, and does its level best to offend. But it also has a few brief astute insights about religion and tolerance, which is surprising in a film like this. The vulgarity grows stale after a while, but on the whole it's way better than I expected. Definitely not for kids though! Believe it or not I give it a B-.

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