The Emoji Movie’s most insidious trait is its surface-level innocuousness. Admit it: You’re eyeballing the film’s colorful TV spots as you fast forward your way through your DVR’d shows, your brow furrowed, your conscience baffled but untroubled. “It looks stupid,” you’re reassuring yourself, “but it’s probably harmless.” But that’s The Emoji Movie’s greatest trick: It’s gaudy and goofy enough to convince you, at a glance, that it’s harmless, similar to how the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Well, let me tell you: The Emoji Movie exists, and it’s a big, dumb, dishonestly corporate pox on all strains of culture, whether popular or technological. Sony Pictures Animation’s bright, carefree, earnestly juvenile marketing for the film suggests innocent if idiotic children’s fare—the sort of picture you’re doomed to bring your kids to see for lack of better options (or any options, really). But these elements, readily displayed in the film’s trailers, veil its true purpose as wanton product placement. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of money changing hands in the background as mobile, web-based platforms like Youtube and Spotify are each name-dropped as a necessary function of The Emoji Movie’s plot. (If you’re wondering why a film adapted from your text message history needs plot, you’re giving it more thought than it deserves.)
There’s a little bit of Inside Out in The Emoji Movie’s story, a little bit of The Lego Movie and much more of Sausage Party than you’d either expect or prefer. (If it must be said aloud: Sausage Party is a horrifying movie.) The setting is Textopolis, a digital burg located within the smartphone of a teenage boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin). It’s the emoji capital, the place where every emoji lives, works and does the one single thing that they’re programmed to do, whether smile, laugh, cry, or act angry. Or, in the case of the movie’s hero, Gene (T.J. Miller), act ambivalent. Except Gene isn’t ambivalent at all! He likes to smile, laugh, cry, go nuts at the sight of adorable babies, and generally be “himself,” which the film blandly, generally defines as “be a stock slacker male protagonist.” There’s nothing measurably special about Gene, so the movie goes out of its way to tell us that there is, and we keep waiting to see it.
Gene’s non-emoji conforming identity ends up causing massive problems at the scanning center in Textopolis, where emoji wait for their user to send a text and then have their image uploaded to his screen. (Think of it as a government job that everyone has. It’s every bit as convoluted and half-assed as it sounds.) Because Sony needs to justify The Emoji Movie’s green-lighting through conflict, the head emoji, Smiler (Maya Rudolph), sends a swarm of anti-virus killbots to erase Gene. Gene, in turn, gets the hell out of Textopolis with a high-five emoji, voiced by James Corden, and searches for a hacker emoji named Jailbreak, voiced by Anna Faris, because she can reprogram him to just be the “meh” emoji he was born to be. Cue a stock narrative about finding oneself in a society where individuality is deemphasized in favor of uniformity.
It’s insulting enough that Sony thinks it can cash in on better, more original movies by lazily fabricating a feature-length cartoon from ideograms. Somehow, it’s even more insulting that, as lazy as they are, they still tried to stuff that fabrication with themes and give it structure. I might not forgive a cheap, craven, totally apathetic attempt at generating income by ripping off competing studios, but I would understand it. Hollywood is an industry, Sony is a business and to survive in an industry a business must fill its coffers with legal tender coaxed from the pockets of chumps. Capitalism sucks. Wear a hat. But I can’t really vibe with a flick as nakedly, brazenly despicable as The Emoji Movie. You shouldn’t hand out business cards for your side gig as you give candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, and you shouldn’t make a movie celebrating the virtues of being who you are if it means paying royalties to Instagram.
That’s not even the worst part of The Emoji Movie experience. The terrible, clumsy gags aren’t, either, and neither is the inept animation, though if I’m being honest they’re both recommendation enough to avoid buying a ticket without getting to what’s most nauseating about the movie. Anthropomorphizing abstractions and inanimate objects isn’t kosher anymore; Sausage Party saw to that last year. In that movie, eating is tantamount to murder. In The Emoji Movie, deleting an app is genocide. About halfway through its running time, Gene, Jailbreak and Hi-5 stumble into a dancing game and start boogying down on the last leg of their journey; tragedy strikes when Alex erases the app from his phone and the program starts to disintegrate around them. The pixelated hostess falls into oblivion, screaming. It’s a blessing that the core audience for the film won’t ruminate at all on the implications of the scene, but you don’t need to spend much time in the tank to find the whole ordeal bone-chilling.
But hey! It’s for the kids, and kids don’t know any better, or at least that’s what the folks behind the film probably told themselves when they decided to fund The Emoji Movie instead of donating its budget to feed the hungry. If there’s justice, the movie will end up a colossal flop, and Hollywood will think twice about basing projects on software. At the very least, maybe they won’t bother mixing enterprise with art.
Director: Tony Leondis
Writer: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, Mike White
Starring: T.J. Miller, Anna Faris, James Corden, Maya Rudolph, Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Jake T. Austin, Patrick Stewart (yes, that Patrick Stewart), Christina Aguilera
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.