The best thing I can say about The Emoji Movie
is that it is not the end of cinema as we know it. Given how some of my fellow critics have reacted to it, you certainly would think so. Yes, it's a completely crass and corporate piece of dreck that's been designed top to bottom to be a soulless entertainment, but it's not the worst thing I've ever seen. It's not even the worst movie I've seen this year. The worst thing I can say is that it's probably the most generic and underwhelming animated feature to hit the big screen in a while.
The movie introduces us to the world inside of a cellphone that belongs to a normal 15-year-old named Alex (voice by Jake T. Austin). While Alex spends his school days texting and trying to get the attention of the school's resident cute girl, Addie (Tati Gabrielle), there's a whole other world inside his phone called "Textopolis", where little emojis live, and go to work every day on a giant square grid. Whenever Alex wants to send an emoji through a text, one of the many emojis gets scanned, and then pops up on his phone's screen. I guess this is what they do all day. The movie doesn't show their lives outside of their job. We also learn that the emojis do occasionally leave Textopolis, and enter other apps on the phone, such as Youtube (where the inhabitants watch kitten videos all day) and Facebook (where everyone shares photos of themselves, and what they ate). Maybe if the credited screenwriters had taken a more satirical tone to this material, it might have worked. Instead, the whole movie seems like a giant advertisement for various games and apps (there are stops in worlds based on real games like Candy Crush and Just Dance) that the kids can download on their own phones after they're finished watching the movie.
All of the emojis are expected to act one way all the time, but there's one named Gene (T.J. Miller) who is supposed to be an unemotional "Meh" face, but instead is capable of multiple emotions and feelings. This makes him somewhat of an embarrassment to his "Meh" parents Mel (a perfectly cast Steven Wright) and Mary (Jennifer Coolidge), who talk in a dull monotone at all times. When Gene gets his big chance to be an official emoji on Alex's phone, he blows it by not knowing what kind of face to make. This somehow makes Gene into a wanted fugitive, as the lead emoji, the constantly-grinning Smiler (Maya Rudolph) immediately sends her attack bots out to delete him permanently. Gene escapes Textopolis with the help of a High Five emoji (James Corden), who was once one of the top expressions on Alex's phone, but has lately been reduced to the loser's lounge with other unused emojis. Their goal is to reach the Cloud, where Gene could become a real Meh, but to get there, the two friends will have to rely on the help of a hacker emoji named Jailbreak (Anna Farris), who needs Gene's help to get past a Firewall. Along the way, there's the usual tacked on message about being yourself and loving who and what you are, as well as a cameo for Sir Patrick Stewart, who cashes a paycheck for about a day or so of work voicing the famous Poop Emoji.
The Emoji Movie
has largely been made out of off the shelf elements of other hit animated films. The whole idea of a world within the phone seems to be taken from the video game world of Wreck-It Ralph
, complete with a similar crisis. (When Alex's phone starts acting strange due to Gene leaving Textopolis, he plans to delete everything on his phone, which will destroy the emojis and their world.) The whole idea of an emoji learning about emotions and what he truly is recalls Inside Out
from two years ago. And then there's the whole theme of bringing us into a hidden world that exists within an everyday object, which has been done so much in animation I'm surprised it hasn't yet gone out of style. And yet, I don't want to make it sound like a movie like this could not work. After all, The Lego Movie
has proven that even an animated film designed to sell toys can be brilliant with the right approach. It is exactly that, the approach, where the filmmakers went astray. Instead of trying to create something witty or satirical, they simply have created a cloned commercial product where apparently little imagination or insight went into making.
Director and co-writer Tony Leondis says that the movie and Gene's plight to discover where he fits in in the world was inspired by his own experiences of growing up gay, and not knowing how to tell his parents. That makes this movie sound more interesting than it really is. Simply put, he has taken a by-the-numbers approach, and does absolutely nothing to make any kind of statement about fitting in that we haven't seen in a dozen other animated films. At its basic core, the movie exists to sell. There's been emoji merchandise on the store shelves long before this movie came along, and I'm sure the studio heads have some money tied in there. And of course, the actual phone apps and games that are constantly name-dropped in the dialogue can be downloaded by anyone watching the movie. Making a movie to sell a product is nothing new. When I was a kid in the 80s, we had dozens if not hundreds of cartoons designed to sell toys and junk food. The real deciding factor that determines if your product is embraced or forgotten is the effort the filmmakers put into it. The only sign of life that can be detected here is from the voice cast, who really do seem to be giving this their all.
Is The Emoji Movie
a cynical cash grab? How can it not be? But those many people who seem to think it's some kind of cinematic cancer that will bring about the end of days are simply overreacting. Either that, or they've forgotten some of the entertainment they grew up on as kids. Yes, this is not a good movie, but the end-all bad movie? If you ask me, this movie barely registers a "meh".