The Emoji Movie depicts a bleak dystopia in which teens are so engrossed in looking down at their smart phones that they bump into each other and fall to the pavement. They can’t be bothered with texting because, as one student declares, “words aren’t cool.” Only miniature icons will do. Truly disturbing stuff.
I wish the next sentence were “Spike Jonze directs from a script by Charlie Kaufman.” What we’re actually stuck with is a candy-colored, present-day flick about the joys of technology aimed squarely at small children. Cover their ears and eyes, parents. The moral of the story is that you are an incomplete wuss without a tricked-out phone in the palm of your hand. (Oh, and be yourself, blah blah blah.) Come to think of it, the “movie” part of the title is misleading. This isn’t a movie. It’s wretched 91-minute ad for the newest IOS disguised as an age-appropriate viewing alternative to Dunkirk.
The first sign of doom: The hero is meh. In sooooo many ways. The film imagines a bunch of emojis living semi-harmoniously in Textopolis. The popular poop emoji (Patrick Stewart) hangs out with the pizza emoji behind a VIP velvet rope; the underused High-5 (James Corden) longs to return to the A-list. The emojis’ job is to sit in a cube like a giant Hollywood Squares board and wait around as a designated teen decides which emoji to use in a message. If he chooses, say, a fist pump emoji, then Mr. Fist Pump is scanned to the phone. Poor Gene (T.J. Miller) is the yellow meh emoji. He needs to stay expressionless during all times. But he just can’t help himself. He’s just too darn excitable!!!
When Gene can’t make the meh face on the spot, the kid’s phone malfunctions. The smiley in charge (Maya Rudolph, always a bright spot) sends the evil bots after him. He and Hi-5, along with a code-breaker emoji (Anna Faris), embark on an adventure through the apps on the phone in hopes of finding a piracy app that will fix Gene and make him “normal.” In the Facebook app, they don’t understand why people take photos of their food. In some Dance-Off app, they shake a move to Pitbull. Doesn’t ‘that sound like fun? It’s not. The narrative is merely a cheap Inside Out rip-off. Venturing into the inner-workings of a kid’s subconscious is brilliant; venturing into the inner-workings of a kid’s phone is crass and weird.
But forget about the hackneyed message for a second. Despite the usual sunny top-notch computer animation, I’m not convinced children will be able to grasp this high-concept mess. I saw the flick with an emoji-obsessed four-year-old girl and throughout the film she kept asking “what does delete mean?” Surely the SoundCloud reference went over her little head. For that matter, I doubt a 9-year-old understands how a Dropbox works. I’m in my 40s and I barely understand it. (Thank goodness a classic Wham! song made me comfortable during my time of need.) Even the eye-rolling jokes fall flat. Though I suppose the sublime poop emoji did his duty. And there are five more dumb puns where that came from!
The summer season has been unusually sluggish for kids movies. The substandard Despicable Me 3 and Cars 3 are both gone. They can’t handle Tiffany Hadish simulating sex with a grapefruit in Girls Trip or a bisexual Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. But what’s the point of getting the little ones off their phones for a few hours if the message of the movie is to get them back on their phones? Cue the vomit emoji.
(The Emoji Movie opens nationwide on Friday, July 28)
Also published on Medium.