For years, Pixar has been the high water mark for giving life to inanimate objects, but the R-rated comedy "Sausage Party" takes that tradition to edgier extremes. An unlikely passion project eight years in the making from co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the movie envisions talking food products in a grocery store who cuss and screw their way through a 90-minute romp. "Sausage Party" plays out like "Toy Story" by way of alt-comics icon Robert Crumb, which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Even in the wildly unfinished version that premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival, the August 12 release is subversive comedy gold.
It's also legitimately well-directed by veteran animators Conrad Vernon ("Shrek 2") and Greg Tierana, who give the world its own loony internal logic. But seriously, "Sausage Party" is really unfinished. In his introduction to a packed house at Austin's Paramount Theatre, Rogen insisted there was "no semantical trickery" to the screening's "work-in-progress" billing, and he wasn't messing around.
The opening musical number, when hordes of packaged food items sing an ebullient tune about the mythological "great beyond" where they believe they go after the checkout counter, played out with blocky visuals and, in some cases, still frames. But that didn't stop its inspired lunacy from shining through.
At its center, hotdog Frank (Rogen) eagerly anticipates the day he'll be able to erotically slip into a nearby bun (Kristen Wiig) once the two get liberated from their packages. En route to their destiny in a shopping cart, they're faced with sudden disaster when a rogue tub of honey mustard proclaims that "the great beyond is a lie." (One naysayer doesn't mince words: "Are you honey or mustard? Make up your mind!") The pandemonium sends a number of food products toppling to the floor, leading to a hilariously gory riff on "Saving Private Ryan" with a culinary twist (complete with a traumatized cookie sandwich picking up one of his maimed parts as flour clouds the scene).
While a handful of sausages face new horrors in an ominous home kitchen, Frank and most of his cohorts spend the movie wandering the aisles and learning the hard truth about the nature of their existence. Their greatest foe is a power-hungry douche — yes, a real douche — voiced by Nick Kroll with a fratty attitude and bloodshot eyes, which should give you a pretty good idea of the outright absurdity littered throughout the plot.
As with "Toy Story," the human characters remain mostly oblivious to the living ecosystem around them — at least until the bloody finale, which is matched only by a conclusive orgy too graphically inventive to spoil here. Sprinkle in liberal use of the word "fuck," a gooey condom, zombie mold and voila:"Sausage Party" ranks as one of the most outrageous animated romps in the feature-length format since "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut," though its naughty fixations and eagerness to offend make it a natural heir to "Fritz the Cat."
With international foods filling nearly every scene, "Sausage Party" offers the kind of all-inclusive stereotyping that only succeeds in the hands of comics willing to take on the brash risk. Random gags range from protestors claiming "God hates figs," goose-stepping Nazi Sauerkraut, and a Middle Eastern pita eager to get his "77 virgin olive oils." The crassest figure might be Salma Hayek as the seductive lesbian Teresa Taco — that is, if it weren't for the sage-like Firewater, who speaks like an anachronistic Native American stereotype as he enlightens the foods to the reality of their situation (and also complains about being driven away from his aisle by "a bunch of crackers").
None of these crude inventions would work if everyone involved in "Sausage Party" wasn't clearly invested in having fun with the material. While Rogen mostly plays it straight, Edward Norton lands one of the stranger credits of his career by doing a foul-mouthed Woody Allen impersonation as Sammy Bagel, Jr. Other contributors, from Michael Cera to Bill Hader and Craig Robinson, make "Sausage Party" the biggest eruption of comedic talent since the party scene of "This is the End." As usual with this bunch, the stupid humor comes equipped with a disarming self-awareness, particularly in the live action finale that cleverly winks at the audience. Unsurprisingly, the raucous SXSW crowd loved it.
With such a ludicrous premise, it's a wonder that "Sausage Party" even exists, much less that it's being released by an actual studio, Sony Pictures. But that's mainly thanks to the reigning queen of creative autonomy in Hollywood, Megan Ellison, whose Annapurna Pictures financed the project (just as it did for Richard Linklater's subtle comedy "Everybody Wants Some!!", which opened the 2016 festival and couldn't be more different).
However, Rogen initially suggested the idea to Vernon in 2008, after they worked together on "Monsters Vs. Aliens."
"I went over to Seth's house, and they put me in the right state of mind," Vernon recalled during the post-screening Q&A, an insinuation that had the crowd in stitches. "They pitched to me, 'We're going to make an R-rated animated movie about sausages who escape their packaging and fuck buns.' That was before they went into the theological discussion of the whole thing.'"
He wasn't entirely kidding. Ostensibly a religious parable about enlightenment, "Sausage Party" may not offer Pixar's emotional depth, but it does have real ideas beneath the raunch. "It honestly came from an innocent place," Rogen said. "People like to project their emotions on to the things around them — their toys, their cars, their pets. That's what Pixar's done for the last 20 years. So we thought, 'What would it be like if our food had feelings? We very quickly realized that it would be fucked up."
While the studio risked a lot by showing such an incomplete version of the movie to SXSW's public, "Sausage Party" is now in its closing production stages. An earlier version test-screened in New York a year and a half ago, and Vernon said the animation will be completed in a month, with lighting effects getting finished by May. Then they'll turn to legendary composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid") to handle the score. "He's deeply ashamed of this," Rogen joked.
Fortunately, "Sausage Party" doesn't have to worry much about studio executives with similar feelings of regret. Rogen acknowledged Ellison's support on the project as its key ingredient. "As exciting as it is to do something that's never been done before, it's equally horrifying to most people with money to do that," he said. "The less precedent there is for something, the less they probably want to spend money on it. They can't point at anything and say, 'They're wasting their money.' But there was no other R-rated animated movie we could point at and say, 'This one did well!' That was what was very hard."
But they've already survived their biggest hurdle: the Motion Picture Association of America, which has approved the movie's R-rating. "You can show food fuck!" Rogen exclaimed. "That's what we learned throughout this process. The notes we got were funny." According to Goldberg, "The biggest issue was [showing] liquid going in people. That was not okay."
Rogen added, "We had a mayonnaise joke we had to cut."
Judging by some of the more grotesque jokes that made it in, however, "Sausage Party" looks well-positioned to both disturb and entertain audiences when it comes out this summer, though they may think twice twice before making the next trip to the grocery store.