Lost in Animation

Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus Features)
Kubo and Sausage Party draw life from the eye

The best moment in recent animated films was The Lego Movie song, “Everything Is Awesome!!” An uproarious satire on this consumer age’s feel-good propaganda, it also critiqued the forced progressivism that infects everything from Apple gadgets and Pixar movies to America’s Pravda-inspired news media. Then what happened? The marketplace lost its ability to receive instruction from satire, and our president wound up seriously paraphrasing “Everything is awesome” in response to a partisan candidate.

The momentary lift one got from The Lego Movie returns with a new animated film, Kubo and the Two Strings, then it gets snatched away by a second cartoon, Sausage Party.

Both films seem geared toward children — the family and the juvenile trade — yet they’re really adult-oriented. In the Asian-set fantasy Kubo, a boy and his mother have escaped from a treacherous dynastic family and live homeless by their wits. Young Kubo’s left eye was stolen by his grandfather, yet Kubo shows a visionary gift for storytelling using origami and a guitar, which serves his journey toward maturity. The American-set Sausage Party is just a raunchier Animal House — expressing fratboy privilege in terms of supermarket products — particularly junk food like hot dogs and buns — in ways that display obvious and rampant immaturity.

Kubo responds to the crisis of our rotted popular culture, while Sausage Party reprocesses its already ground-up entrails. Not a satire like The Lego Movie, Kubo is a delicate tale addressing today’s sense of moral bereavement. This is conveyed through the boy’s search for the father he never knew. Little Kubo’s gallantry parallels the desperation of youth from broken families as well as adults who are estranged from now-outmoded cultural and moral traditions.

It’s no wonder that Laika, the film’s production company, which also made the very fine Coraline and ParaNorman, based Kubo on Asian folklore. American folklore is in disrepute, undermined by “transformative” politics that question patriarchy and national and religious history. Kubo’s vaguely Buddhist fairytale (featuring vengeful ghosts and ideas on reincarnation) passes muster through its nondenominational focus. When Kubo journeys, carrying a bracelet made from his mother’s hair (plus a monkey charm and a samurai origami figure, which come to life as a furry monkey and a black beetle), he’s told that the bracelet is “Memory — and memories are powerful.”

Here, Rogen’s usual vulgar human characters become animated comestibles. But these aren’t just products; the horny male sausages, lusty female buns, and assorted other items on Shopwell’s shelves represent humanity — but humanity revealed as commodities. Despite the use of animation (directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon) this is only a new version of Moloch: mankind seen as merchandise waiting to be consumed by the cruel and malignant gods they worship. Sausage Party opens with a pale riff on “Everything Is Awesome” — a song called “Dear gods,” a mash-up of South Park and The Book of Mormon.

It’s not enough for Rogen to satirize gluttonous habits; he appeals to debauchery — James Franco injecting bath salts, Nick Kroll as a douche product who rapes Vincent Tong as a juice box, Salma Hayek as a lesbian taco, with a climactic food orgy. Rogen flaunts human instincts repressed by religion: Michael Cera and Kristen Wiig play the hot-dog-and-bun couple who argue logic over faith.

#related#A surprising misstep in Kubo confronts the boy hero with a malicious ancestor who exploits religion, promising immortality from “hate, heartache, suffering, and death.” Not exactly sure how this modern skepticism sneaked into Kubo, but, as part of the way contemporary animation traffics in social turmoil, it doesn’t help. Neither does the surprise of Rogen’s Mideast parody (David Krumholtz as lavash arguing/sexting with Edward Norton as a bagel) or Rogen’s anti-American skits (Craig Robinson as grits, Bill Hader as tobacco, Scott Underwood as a Twinkie, representing respectively “nonperishable” black, Native American, and gay groups). This is Rogen mocking the basic banality of tribal politics. None of this elevates Sausage Party’s “message.” It stays in the toilet. That’s what you get after ingesting junk.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Awards’ Anti-Censorship Award in 2014. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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