‘The Emoji Movie’
Director: Tony Leonidis
Voices of: T.J. Miller, Anna Faris
1 Globe (out of 5)
The Poochie of movies, “The Emoji Movie” is a not very good idea done poorly. It’s like the KFC Double Down: Sure, you could make a sandwich where the buns are flaming hot chicken patties separated by bacon, American cheese and demon sauce, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Similarly, you could make a movie where the characters are those hieroglyphics smartphone addicts use instead of words, or you could recognize that doing that requires a convoluted mythology that’s simply not worth the effort. Execs with more money than sense obviously thought otherwise, deciding this was a proactive premise that could create a totally outrageous new paradigm.
And so we get a movie whose army of writers struggled to make it make sense, only to reveal there’s a fine line separating clever from labored (and stupid). They vie for Pixar; they think of it as "Toy Story" by way of "Inside Out." But it's really closer to "Cars": an incoherently designed world, riddled with logic holes like Swiss cheese. That would be the cringe-inducingly titled “Textopolis,” where emojis live in homes and go to work. Some, but for some reason not all, of them toil as emojis, lining up in a super-sized “Hollywood Squares” contraption, waiting for their user — a teenage boy who likes a girl at school and has no other defining characteristics — to use one of them to communicate his complex feelings over texted message.
For what it’s worth, “The Emoji Movie” tries. If anything, it tries too hard. Our hero is the meh emoji, whose name is Gene and who’s voiced, for reasons that defy logic, by the eternally excitable T.J. Miller, who sounds like he’s been forcefed downers. Gene has performance anxiety, and when it’s his time for his face to be scanned and transmitted over networks, he screws up, resulting in an awkward, unreadable emoji that’s decidedly un-meh. (Note: This is not a problem any smartphone user has ever encountered ever.)
Gene is scheduled for deletion, but he escapes, teaming up with a hand emoji (James Corden) and a mysterious hacker (Anna Faris) to journey into the far reaches of the smartphone-verse to find…well, it’s not exactly clear. But it gives them the chance to visit the realms of other popular apps, like Dropbox and Candy Crush and Just Dance, wrapping up this exercise in corporate synergy with a nice little bow.
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And yet “The Emoji Movie” isn’t entirely cynical. Buried inside it — deep, deep down, like treasure located miles under the ocean floor — is a philosophical treatise on nature vs. nurture: Are we (or emojis) trapped by who we are? Are we conditioned by our birth and our surroundings? Can we ever change? Pixar would have knocked this out of the park — or they wouldn’t have, because they would never touch an animated opus about emojis, because that’s dumb.
The makers of “The Emoji Movie” are not Pixar, and any intellectual or emotional subtext gets lost in a sea of bad puns and first-thing-that-pops-in-the-head jokes reminiscent of the grueling Dreamworks face-palm machine “A Shark Tale.” Corden’s hand emoji says “Talk to the hand!”, a colon complains about his colon and two poops (one voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart) shout, “We’re number two!” When it tries to go deep, the result is nonsensical aphorisms (“What’s the point of being number one when they aren’t any other numbers?”) that play like Zen koans badly translated into Japanese then into English. “Words aren’t cool!”, says one of the high schoolers, and he has a point; just look at the script.
Eventually, it turns into an advertisement for emojis, its human characters saying things like, “That’s a super-cool emoji!” For those who don’t text with emojis, it will only serve as a reminder to keep the written word alive — to defy a culture that would spawn “The Emoji Movie” by texting with complete sentences, correct capitalization and passive-aggressive punctuation.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge