As a so-called grown-up with an intense love for animation, I’m constantly advocating for more „grown-up” animation to be made. This isn’t because I want more art catering to me, or because I sometimes feel apologetic about having interests that are labelled as childish, although I suppose the above may be unconscious factors, too. The thing is, animation is truly awesome, and, as I always say, it’s a medium, not a genre. Animation can create fantastic worlds from scratch, and tailor these worlds to any kind of story. There is no reason why we couldn’t have animated films for adults in a variety of genres: drama, romance, horror, sci-fi, you name it. Animation can do anything; indeed, if you’re at all knowledgeable about the world of independent filmmaking, you know that animation already does do all these things.
Which is why it grates a bit, to say the least, that every single instance of mainstream, big-budget animation targeted at „grown-ups” ends up being an „edgy” comedy-satire for high-school and college kids.
I recently saw the Seth Rogen vehicle „Sausage Party„, which, I understand, is shaping up to be a massive box-office success. Its protagonist, a sentient sausage named Frank, is looking forward to being inserted into Brenda the bun. Get it? It’s funny because sausages look like penises, and Brenda is designed to look like a vagina, and genitals are funny (I guess.) There are a lot of „fucks” being said, because swearing non-stop is funny in itself (I guess.) Some of these sentient food items do drugs, because being stoned is funny in itself (I guess). All the fruits are gay, because, get it? Gay? Fruit? There is also some semblance of a plot, involving a very obvious and clumsy metaphor for rejecting organised religion. Supermarket foodstuffs have some kind of mythology around being bought and eaten; they think gods are taking them to „The Great Beyond”, but it’s all a lie. Get it? Get it? It’s totally like religion. It’s clever. Also, a Jewish bagel and a (misogynistic, bearded) Middle-Eastern wrap bread don’t get along because one of them occupied the other’s shelf or something. It’s about Palestine, get it? Get it? TELL ME, ARE YOU GETTING THIS OR NOT, GROWN-UP?
Yeah, I didn’t find any of it too funny or clever, because „Sausage Party” is a terrible excuse for a movie (or, alternatively, as others are sure to say, I’m a humourless killjoy), but that’s not even my point. People with a different sense of humour from mine deserve to have pop-culture products they can enjoy, too. I wouldn’t have bothered to pick on this movie, or even see it, really, if it was just one of many diverse animated films for adults that are being given a chance by studios. But, as it happens, „Sausage Party” is being heralded as the only player in its field in many years, and thus it ends up defining ADULT ANIMATION. „This film is definitely not for kids! Finally, a different kind of cartoon, a cartoon for adults!” reviewers announce. I beg to differ.
The version of adulthood that „Sausage Party” caters to is incredibly narrow. Yes, sex is a messy natural function that can be funny sometimes, the occasional dick joke can be funny, swearing can be funny, and so on. But a person who sees these things as a novel and endless source of amusement, enough to support a 90-minute film, is, perhaps, not an adult- an adult should’ve had enough time since puberty to get familiarised with them. I would say it’s more like a teenager, freshly emerged from the world of childhood restrictions, to be giggly all the time at the thought that he CAN have sex, he CAN crack jokes about sex and genitals, he CAN swear, he CAN drink and he CAN get stoned, if he so wishes. It’s definitely teenager behaviour to feel edgy for uttering even the most limp „naughty” pun, to think you’re being super offensive when you talk about dicks. I didn’t find any of „Sausage Party” actually offensive, just a bit boring and unimaginative.
That’s all fine and dandy, comedy is subjective. But we shouldn’t confine „adult animation” to mean only this kind of approach, the same way „animation” for children in general shouldn’t be only Disney/Pixar-style coming-of-age stories. Before „Sausage Party”, we’ve had other prominent animated films for adults in the form of spinoffs from TV sitcoms like „South Park”, „Beavis and Butthead” or „Aqua Teen Hunger Force”, and other „out-there” comedies such as Adam Sandler’s intensely terrible „Eight Crazy Nights”. Some of these films are better than „Sausage Party” or an Adam Sandler vehicle; I’m rather partial to South Park and Team America: World Police myself. But going for shock value (or, rather, what would be perceived as shocking by a 14-year-old or a particularly repressed Victorian time-traveller) is not the (only) way to add adult sensibilities to a cartoon.
Perhaps I am being naive, but my idea of adulthood is related to maturity, to reaching a capacity for perceiving and understanding nuance, shades of grey, complex situations. Perfectly happy endings, black-and-white villains and heroes, fart jokes: these things are, dare I say, a tad juvenile. Films for adults, animated or not, should be able to explore experimental, sophisticated ideas, as well as a variety of angles for the more grounded human experience, not just easy laughs (although easy laughs are, of course, welcome every once in a while). There have been many animated films for grown-ups that showcase a diversity of genres and interesting ideas, most of them small independent productions (or anime imports such as Satoshi Kon’s trippy thrillers), but, apart from the occasional big award winner like „Persepolis” or „Waltz with Bashir”, they don’t get the same kind of attention or claim to the term „adult animation”; indeed, much of the press has been acting like „Sausage Party” invented the idea of animation targeted at people older than 13.
Of course, if „Sausage Party” itself manages to raise the profile of animation for adults as a concept, it would make me quite happy, but I’m afraid at the moment it’s looking like we’re all understanding it as „formulaic Pixar-ish quest comedy for kids plus toilet humor”. While we’re at it, though: are Pixar films really more childish than „Sausage Party”?
I’m not even the greatest Pixar fan (I find them a bit overrated sometimes), but they often strike me as having a nuanced, intelligent, and dare I say, adult approach. Their latest, „Finding Dory”, is not their best film, and it definitely has all the wacky hijinks of a kiddie movie, but it also has depth in the way it talks about disability and/or mental ilness. Indeed, Dory’s short-term memory loss is a disability, not just a comic device, and the film doesn’t shy away from portraying the angst she goes through when confronted with the limitations it imposes on her life. It also portrays quite honestly the toll this disability takes on Dory’s relationships, and the constant forgiveness required from both those around her (when Dory makes mistakes caused by her condition) and from Dory herself (when others lose their patience with her).
It’s all quite simple, but it’s not simplistic, and kids who watch this cartoon about talking fish will, perhaps, become more compassionate and understanding of a common human experience, without feeling that they’ve been preached to. Maybe adult animation shouldn’t aim to improve on Pixar- maybe it should first try to learn a thing or two from them.