Looking back, it seems so obvious. We should have seen The Emoji Movie’s utter awfulness coming. But as with so many other things in 2017, hindsight is not so much 20/20 as a giant regret generator.
All the signs were there. First there was the announcement at CinemaCon in 2016: Sony was going to release a movie set in the world of smartphone apps and emojis, which the studio viewed as not just something the youths would like (because they are obsessed with their phones, doncha know) but also as a great opportunity to rake in the product placement — excuse me, partner — bucks from apps that would appear in the film.
Then there was what seems to have been a short-lived attempt to name the film Emojimovie: Express Yourself, because, as Sony Pictures Animation president Kristine Belson put it in a press release, “The power of emojis is that they allow you to express yourself in a fast and very fun way, and that is what our movie is about: self expression.” (This title was mercifully abandoned somewhere along the way for the simpler, less eyestabby The Emoji Movie.)
After that, there was a bit of a lull, punctuated only by occasional reminders of the movie’s impending arrival via movie posters, trailers, and the announcement in January that the great Sir Patrick Stewart would be voicing the Poo emoji. That announcement boded well for the film, and briefly I thought it might turn out okay after all, or at least pretty self-aware.
Maybe like last summer’s Sausage Party, it would mix some interesting social critique into its animated entertainment — goodness knows that a movie about the changing ways we communicate with our phones had plenty of opportunities to serve up a little bit of good alongside mostly fluffy entertainment.
But then on Monday, the official Emoji Movie Twitter account tweeted a new ad that one can only assume that someone at Sony thought would be quirky and hip:
Using The Handmaid’s Tale — a serious work of fiction and a recent, highly regarded Hulu TV show about a dystopian society in which women are ritually raped — as a lighthearted marketing peg was a pretty good indication that The Emoji Movie wasn’t going to be self-aware and clever and thoughtful.
Most likely, it was going to be a garbage fire. And now that I’ve seen it, I can confirm that suspicion: The Emoji Movie is a waste of time, resources, and a bunch of comedians’ voices, plus a premise that actually had the potential to do some small good in the world. It’s less of a movie and more of an insult.
The Emoji Movie is heavy on product placement, light on story
Still, as a critic, you walk into every movie — even the ones you’re pretty sure are going to stink up the joint — with a sense of hope and willingness to be amazed. And The Emoji Movie, friends, is certainly amazing.
It’s amazing that we can put a man on the moon but movies like this still somehow get made. It’s amazing that with all that partner money, Sony couldn’t pay for a better script, with better lines of humorous dialogue to be delivered by the emojis than, “Throw some sauce on that dance burrito!”
It’s amazing — or maybe it isn’t — that in addition to its poorly conceived Handmaid’s Tale stunt, the filmmakers saw fit to have a character sing, “Nobody knows the touch screens I’ve seen / Nobody knows the screenshots,” while sitting atop a pile of trash, to the tune of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” a spiritual written by slaves to bolster their spirits while toiling in the pre-Emancipation American South.
It’s amazing to witness the baldly commercial attempt to shove as many recognizable apps as possible into The Emoji Movie’s sad excuse for a plot: Crackle (owned by Sony), WeChat (hugely popular in China, where this movie is aiming to make a killing), Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Dropbox all make appearances, with Dropbox in particular representing a kind of heaven that some of the emojis are trying to reach. And there are two whole sequences that add nothing whatsoever to the story but suggest that King and Ubisoft — the makers of the apps Candy Crush and Just Dance, respectively — paid handsomely for their inclusion in the film.
But ... about that story. The emojis all live in Textopolis, located within a (brandless) smartphone owned by a high school freshman named Alex. In Textopolis, everyone has one function and one function only; the smiles smile, the crying faces cry, the Christmas trees stand still and look Christmassy, the princesses talk about being pretty, and the sushi just ... sits around getting warm, I guess (as does the eggplant, in case you were curious).
Each day, the emoji report to work and wait in their designated box on a big grid to be tapped by Alex for his communication needs. And they love it. They are part of what the movie unironically declares is “the most important invention in the history of communication.” (A brief scene in which a high school teacher is lecturing on hieroglyphics seems to contradict this, but who’s counting.)
But one emoji in particular is having a tough time with being confined to both a literal and a figurative box: Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), a “meh” emoji and the son of Mel and Mary Meh. Gene can’t stick to just one expression. He wants to smile and frown and sometimes have heart eyes. He wants to express himself! But he’s so worried he’ll mess up that on his first day at work, he freaks out when Alex selects him and ends up appearing as a weird, distorted face.
Aha! He’s been found out as a “malfunction,” and the emoji head honcho, Smiler (Maya Rudolph) — who runs things because she was the very first emoji — starts the proceedings to delete Gene entirely, with a massive sinister grin pasted across her face the whole time. (That’s Smiler up there in the ill-conceived “Emoji’s Tale” ad, by the way. The metaphor does not work.)
Trying to figure out what to do, Gene teams up with Hi-5 (James Corden), who has recently been downgraded from the VIP “favorites” section of Alex’s keyboard and is pretty sore about it. Hi-5 is certain there’s a way to save Gene and maybe sneakily upgrade his own status in the phone’s universe: They must find a mysterious hacker they call Jailbreak (Anna Faris).
But that requires leaving Textopolis and venturing out into the wide world of apps on Alex’s phone. And it’s dangerous out there.
The Emoji Movie wants to be a Pixar movie. It lacks the elements that make Pixar movies work.
The visualization of Alex’s phone’s world is the film’s high point, by a long shot. (If you were expecting its high point to be Sir Patrick Stewart as Poo, you will be disappointed; he has maybe six lines in the whole movie, all quips.) It vaguely recalls the parts of Inside Out in which the emotions (and Bing Bong) are traversing Riley’s subconscious mind, a landscape filled with set pieces that have to be visually interesting because there’s nothing concrete to draw on.
But Inside Out knew that the purpose of set pieces is to advance the plot. In The Emoji Movie, the purpose of set pieces is to have a place to make use of app developers’ partnership money — and it shows in the shoddy storytelling. If you cropped out those set piece scenes, you’d have pretty much the same film.
And they’re not even funny. Two big scenes into Gene, Jailbreak, and Hi-5’s journey, a little girl sitting behind me said, “Mommy, I want to go home now.”
The Emoji Movie’s director and co-writer, Tony Leondis, seems to admire Pixar’s films greatly; in addition to the Inside Out resonances, he’s said in interviews that he took inspiration from Toy Story. “That’s really what I was thinking, ‘What is the new toy out there that hasn’t been explored?’” he told ScreenRant. “And I looked down on my phone and someone had sent me an emoji, and I was like, ‘Emojis are the new toys — they’re the toys of the 21st century.’”
Eh, slow down there, Tony. What made Toy Story — which has plenty of product placement of its own — so wonderful was that it was, in essence, a story about the toys’ owners, which includes both the film’s Andy and us out in the audience. It was about growing older and finding your way, and about imagination. Buzz Lightyear is a great counterpoint to Woody in the film because he is new and clueless, and the drama in the original film and its two wonderful sequels comes from seeing how the micro-drama of the toys is actually just a reflection of Andy’s journey as he grows older.
Seeing The Emoji Movie is a vote for less imagination, more advertising aimed at kids
The Emoji Movie keeps the “fun stuff kids play with” part of Toy Story and ditches all of its humanity. There’s no drama here. It’s hard to care what happens to Gene Meh (even making him a “meh” seems like a weirdly easy gimme for critics), though a more disciplined screenplay could have trotted out the tired but still accurate children’s movie sentiment about always being true to yourself.
It also could have taken Jailbreak’s storyline and fleshed it out, rather than giving her about three eye-rolling, performatively feminist lines that seem spliced in to ward off anyone who brings up the sexist history of emojis. (And commentary on that history is sloppily integrated in the film; Jailbreak repeatedly corrects Hi-5 about his outdated stereotypes regarding her variety of emoji, only to reinforce the very same stereotype in the film’s climactic scene.)
Or it could have noticed that its target audience — kids who have access to phones at earlier and earlier ages — might benefit from a movie that makes them think a little about whether they should always be staring at little screens.
Instead, it’s a pointless romp with lousy dialogue that fails to even be fun, though it does begin to approach so-bad-it’s-good territory. There was plenty of laughter at my screening, but of the laughing-at, not laughing-with variety. The Emoji Movie’s grand contribution to our world, alas, will be a new dance called the “Emoji-Pop," or possible the "Emoji-Bop," in which you do whatever you want with your legs to loud club music while putting your hands up to your face repeatedly, in a kind of hellish game of peek-a-boo, with a new expression every time you take your hands away.
(The movie also suggests you can delete “trolls” in the same manner in which you delete emails, apps, and apparently emojis; would that it twere so simple.)
And that’s all in addition to the movie’s lousy, constant product placement, which is its worst attribute by far. If you don’t believe me, consider this: Our heroes are being chased by destroyer bots (it’s a long story) through the phone’s landscape and then, finally, they reach the much-touted Dropbox icon and run through the wall, where at last they will be safe. The bot follows them but bounces against the wall. Gene asks if the bot will be able to break into the app. “Don’t worry, it can’t get in,” Jailbreak reassures him. “It’s illegal malware, and this app is secure!”
Presented with such a stinking pile of poo, what can you possibly do? You can’t review it in all emojis — that’s too easy. You can’t explore its interesting ideas about children, phones, language, and communication, because it doesn’t have any. You can’t even fully describe in words, or emojis, the frustration of seeing money blithely poured into a film that’s one massive, uncritical ad for something nearly everyone in the theater already owns, dressed up as family-friendly entertainment.
All there’s left to say is that giving money to a movie like this is only going to encourage more like it. So please: Don’t do it. Stay home. Watch literally anything else. And maybe put down your phone.
The Emoji Movie opens in theaters on July 28.
This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the name of the emojis’ hometown. It is Textopolis.