“Sausage Party” may be a film about a hotdog that wants to have sex with a bun, but it still represents a watershed moment for Hollywood. The raunchy comedy that’s grossed $65 million after two weeks in theaters is the first R-rated CG animated movie. Co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, “Sausage Party” has sex, violence and curse words in a format that has always been reserved for family-friendly fare.
The movie features the voices of comedic stars like Rogen, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, James Franco and Paul Rudd playing anthropomorphized food items who discover their only reason for existing is to be eaten by humans. Directors Conrad Vernon (“Monsters vs. Aliens”) and Greg Tiernan (TV’s “Thomas & Friends”) have backgrounds in traditional animation aimed at children, but there’s nothing traditional about this deranged dark comedy. Produced by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and distributed by Columbia Pictures, “Sausage Party” even had to go back to the cutting room after being edited to avoid a NC-17 rating from the MPAA.
Despite a wave of increasingly sophisticated and critically acclaimed marquee animated movies that can be enjoyed by children and adults, from “The Incredibles” to “Wall-E” to “Inside Out,” there hasn’t been a CG animated movie targeted specifically at adults on this scale before. Why did it take the studios more than 20 years to go from G-rated animation like Pixar’s “Toy Story” to an adult-oriented movie like “Sausage Party”?
Part of the reason has to do with R-rated animation’s checkered past. Director Ralph Bakshi found commercial success with a small number of X-rated cartoon features in the 1970s like “Fritz the Cat,” about a sexually promiscuous feline college student, but repeating his success proved nearly impossible for almost everyone who tried, including Bakshi himself.
“A lot of his early films led to a belief that you could make money making animated films for someone other than kids,” said film critic Leonard Maltin, whose books include “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Films.” “Millions of dollars were lost on that belief.”
Loss-makers released in the wake of “Fritz” included Bakshi’s own “Coonskin,” about sex, drugs and crime in New York City, director Charles Swenson’s “Dirty Duck,” about a foul-mouthed fowl, and Belgian cartoonist Picha’s “Shame of the Jungle,” about a prehistorical ape man featuring the voices of Bill Murray and John Belushi. None of these films were successes at the box office, but Bakshi placed the blame on timid distribution executives, not the movies themselves.
“R-rated animated films would work if they were distributed correctly and stood behind by the studios,” Bakshi told IndieWire in a recent interview. “Fritz the Cat’s” theatrical distributor Cinemation Industries loved the film, but Paramount Pictures abandoned “Coonskin” after it was completed for fear it was too controversial, according to Bakshi. “‘Coonskin’ was thrown out the window,” he said. “It was probably my best film.” One of Bakshi’s other well-known titles is the 1992 live-action-with-animation movie “Cool World,” for which “Sausage Party” directors Tiernan and Vernon both worked as animators.
Though Bakshi said it’s about time a major studio released an animated film for adults, he was quick to point out that that makers of “Sausage Party,” which was produced for a modest $19 million, can’t expect to replicate the box office performance of animated franchises like “Shrek,” “Ice Age,” or “Madagascar.” “If they want to go out and make a billion dollars and merchandise the hell out of an R-rated doll, they’re going to be disappointed,” Bakshi said. Still, with animated films generating more revenue than most live action movies, expanding beyond just kid-friendly stories is a logical progression. “I don’t know if ‘Sausage Party’ will make any money, but of course the format is valid,” Bakshi said. “I’m shocked that it took so long.”
While independent filmmakers have been making adult-focused animated films for decades, none of them have been able to attract studio interest. Animator and writer-director Bill Plympton has been churning out animated movies for mature audiences for 30 years. “I know there’s a market out there for it,” Plympton said. “The problem is, the distributors don’t believe it.” Plympton’s critically acclaimed animated film “The Tune,” about a songwriter who has to write a hit in less than an hour or lose his job, premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
“That opened up the gateways to independent producers making their own [animated] films, which is a real phenomenon today,” Plympton said. “Not all of them get distributed, but a lot of them end up online or on DVD or cable.” Plympton’s eighth animated feature “Revengeance,” currently in post-production, follows a low-rent bounty hunter through the dark underbelly of crooked L.A. Plympton says that generations of adults who grew up liking animation would still be attracted to the medium if the subject matter aligned more with their grown up taste. “They don’t want to see the same happy animal singing songs and dancing,” he said. “They want to see adult ideas, artwork and concepts.”
While the animated feature film category has been dominated by family-friendly movies, TV animation has a rich history of adult-focused programming dating back more than 50 years, much of which helped pave the way for “Sausage Party.” From 1960 to 1966, “The Flintstones” had a primetime slot on ABC as a cartoon satire of sitcoms like “The Honeymooners,” and was even sponsored by Winston cigarettes.
“The Simpsons,” the longest-running American animated program, is arguably more responsible for proving that adult humor can work in animation than any other show, though Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “South Park” pushed the envelope the furthest with its crude language and dark humor aimed exclusively at mature audiences. The pair’s feature film version “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” is one of the few R-rated animated feature films from the past two decades, alongside non-TV properties like the Israeli documentary “Waltz With Bashir” and Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped “Waking Life.” Charlie Kaufman’s critically acclaimed 2015 stop-motion comedy-drama “Anomalisa” is the most recent example, but the film underperformed at the box office.
For animation historian, producer and distributor Jerry Beck, “Sausage Party” marks the maturation of animation that should have happened at least 30 years ago. “It’s happening now probably because the tools are easier,” Beck said. “We’re entering this really great new age of new takes, new styles and new ideas that could only be done in animation.”
If more writers, directors and producers come together to collaborate on similar projects while attracting Hollywood stars like the cast of “Sausage Party,” the studios could wind up with a new formula for success on their hands, according to Beck. “People who are going to go on Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert and say ‘I’m in the new animated movie’ can fill the seats,” Beck said. “Someday hopefully we’ll be talking about Quentin Tarantino’s animated feature.”
Regardless of whether “Sausage Party” attracts the same audiences that flock in droves to Rogen and Goldberg’s films like “Superbad” and “This Is the End,” the movie has already achieved a certain level of success just by breaking down the barrier of family-friendly animation, according to Maltin. “Anything is possible now,” he said. “The field really is wide open.”