Sausage Party, out this weekend, is an R-rated animated bacchanal about anthropomorphic grocery store edibles that stars Seth Rogen as a thirsty wiener and Kristen Wiig as an equally thirsty bun. The whole thing is an attempt at pure, unadulterated raunch (Hidden Valley Raunch™) untainted by any deeper ambitions. And it made me think of something adult animation godfather Ralph Bakshi once said: "It doesn't take controversy for animation to be soulful and beautiful."
Bakshi is responsible for two of the most notoriously controversial animated movies of the 20th century, Fritz the Cat (the first X-rated animated movie, released in 1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973), so his comment possesses an air of irony. But Bakshi's movies have a quality that Sausage Party lacks. While irreverent, they're never irrelevant. They're beautifully ugly, deeply entrenched in the then-current cultural conversation. They have a personal vision (a vision not shared by noted pervert R. Crumb, who abhorred what Bakshi did to his Fritz and subsequently killed the character). Between foursomes in bathtubs and transvestites turning tricks, Bakshi's movies extrapolate the sociopolitical current in squalid, hedonistic New York circa the early '70s. His jaundiced vision of a degenerative city seeks empowerment in offense, in riots and outrage and revolution, but also understand the contradiction inherent in all political ideologies.
We need more adult-oriented movies like this, with pubes and profundities.
Since the advent of the Disney Renaissance and Pixar, children's animation has become increasingly ambitious. Movies like Inside Out and Up, waterworks factories each, address ambitious themes in accessible ways. That's nice, but there's something freeing and unfettered about adult animation, about not having to cater to the kiddies. (Today, most of the great adult-oriented animation seems to be happening on TV, or Netflix, i.e. BoJack Horseman.)
Bakshi, who also helmed the first animated film version of The Lord of the Rings and the wonderfully weird Wizards, uses animation as a means of sifting through the sordid stuff at the heart of American culture. He depicts all this squalor and rancor in impressionistic, expressionistic, experimental ways, writing and illustrating with a wicked, caricaturist pen. Coonskin, a movie that no sane producer would fund today (#problematic), comingles live action and animation and delves into the African American diaspora. It's arthouse, grindhouse, house of pleasure and house of pain, all entangled like angry lovers.
The one similarity Sausage Party has to Bakshi is its plethora of caricatures, though Rogen's caricaturizations are the joke rather than a means to anything else. The movie may be a cheap dick joke stretched to 80 minutes, but it isn't a cheaply made movie. It had a budget of $19 million, and at the New York premiere, Rogen said that the movie had been marinating for a decade. You'd think that it might be slightly more ambitious after that long, but it isn't even the most salacious animated movie released in theaters this year. That honor goes to the phantasmagoric Japanese film Belladonna of Sadness (1973), long sought after by animation aficionados. It received a restoration and re-release earlier this year. It's a movie of pure sensual indulgence spilling across the screen, so the narrative is sometimes hard to follow. It depicts a woman whose idyllic wedding night ends in a ritualistic rape by the local baron, whose violation conjures in her head visions of phallic, demonic entities. She's accused of being a witch, and later uses her sexual prowess to lead a revolution. The movie presents a lavishness of throbbing body parts enmeshed in fantastical arrangements, all set to a sultry jazz score that brings to mind the French film Fantastic Planet, also 1973, which was an astounding year for animation. Fantastic Planet, a surreal sci-fi allegory that vivisects humanity, humanism, racism, and speciesism, was rereleased by Criterion Collection this year, and remains a brazenly singular vision that's only possible through animation.
Adult animation can be blasphemous and ravenous, as with Bambi Meets Godzilla (1968), in which Bambi meets Godzilla, briefly, or the Lenny Bruce-derived Thank You Mask Man (1971), in which the Lone Ranger wants to have sex with Tonto. But it can also be understanding and restrained, as with Persepolis, the 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel, or the 2008 animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, a melange of fleeting memories from the 1982 Lebanon War. These movies, even the 90-second Bambi one, all have purpose, vision.
An R-rating does not innately mean "for adults," though. This summer, as if we haven't had enough wretched Batman movies, we got the utterly unnecessary The Killing Joke, the first R-rated Batman animated movie, in which the voice actors struggle to nail the odd cadences of Alan Moore's dialogue. To make it more "adult," Batgirl has sex with Batman.
Adult animation doesn't have to translate exclusively to "porn" or violence, of course. You don't need an orgy or massacre to say something meaningful. Last year, the inimitable Don Hertzfeldt bestowed upon us his rapturously beautiful World of Tomorrow, which, in 17 minutes, disinters more profound truths, and more gut-aching laughs, than anything Pixar has done this decade. It tries, and may very well succeed, to encapsulate what makes us human. "I am very proud of my sadness," a third-generation clone tells her adolescent progenitor. "It means I am more alive." It doesn't take controversy for animation to be soulful and beautiful.