Film Review: The Emoji Movie

Inspired work by an enthusiastic group of name actors isn’t enough to carry this otherwise under-inspired animated popcorn movie.
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Going into The Emoji Movie, one had to wonder if an animated film that promised to show us the world inside our smartphones was going to offer anything beyond the obligatory spoofery of easy social-media targets, passing nods to today’s pop-culture fads, and characters as one-dimensional as the emojis they were trying to bring to life. But, of course, the answer is a qualified yes: The movie also has a main plotline about a young emoji who is trying to figure out where he fits in this world—which takes him on a quest that, though wildly colorful and frantically eventful, will lead him pretty much where we expected it to. It’s all about finding yourself, and being yourself, and discovering that you were where you belonged all along. Sound familiar?

The good news for attending parents is that just enough of all of the above will keep them at least mildly diverted while their kids trance out on the pumped-up pace and palette. And so, the captive audience tags along on the journey of Gene (T.J. Miller) who lives in the “Textopolis” app of a boy named Alex’s phone, and hopes to achieve status as one of Alex’s go-to emojis. Gene is the son of “Meh” emoji parents, and as such is expected to carry on their blasé tradition. But as he reports for work in his cubicle, waiting to be selected for inclusion in Alex’s e-mail correspondence, Gene quickly discovers that he’s a round peg in a square hole. The trouble is that he’s too expressive: He has a personality! This instantly gets him branded as a “malfunction” and designated for “deletion.” With anti-virus bots trying to zap him, Gene has no choice but to begin his journey—by getting out of town. Or, rather, the Textopolis app.

This is where the movie becomes marginally more engaging, partially thanks to stopovers in such Internet destinations as Candy Crush and YouTube (admittedly easy targets for lampooning), as well as a seedy club where the patrons are mostly computer viruses and discarded spam. There’s a facile cleverness to these set-pieces that is helped by their relative brevity. Too much of any of them would have quickly worn thin. Thankfully, in this film, we never linger anywhere for too long.

But it’s the affection curried by—surprise!—the characters that accounts for whatever good will the movie musters. That’s especially true of yearning, insecure Gene and his accidental traveling companions, the hapless, pratfalling High-5 (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris), a runaway-princess emoji posing as a blue-haired, knit-cap-wearing slacker-hacker emoji. (Is there really one of those?) These two characters consistently get the best of the movie’s wildly inconsistent dialogue, and Corden and Faris make the most of it. As a result, the cheerfully boisterous Corden is the most dependable comic relief, and Faris, sassily tossing off her snarky one-liners, is the closest we come to genuine wit.

This is not to slight Maya Rudolph’s scene-stealing Smiler, the unofficial mayor of Textopolis, who maintains her maniacal grin (and sounds the part) no matter what chaos is disrupting her order; or Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge, who amusingly finesse their monotone line readings, as Gene’s parents, Mel and Mary Meh. In fact, it needs to be noted that the voicework here is commendable throughout, with everyone from Rachael Ray as Spam to Patrick Stewart as Poop making a distinctive impression This isn’t the most star-studded cast of voices, but it is among the most, well, animated.

In the end, though, one comes away feeling that the filmmakers could have done so much more with their concept. Yes, it fulfills its primary function of keeping kids in their seats. But unlike the most successful family films, it makes few attempts at grownup-pleasing humor, and even when the filmmakers try, they rarely really succeed. Their sense of irony is either too blunt (as when the voiceover narration proclaims emojis to be the most important development in the history of communication) or too offhand (as when we get a glimpse of phone-owner Alex learning about hieroglyphics in class). Sure, Rachael Ray’s Spam is spot-on with her intrusively aggressive friendliness and her discount introductory offers, and yes, it’s fun to watch the Just Dance world topple when deleted, in what looks like a futuristic, fast-forward last day of Pompeii. But these are rare highlights in a screenplay that too often contents itself with poop jokes, corny comebacks and teen-romance greeting-card sentiments that may also have been intended as irony, but just don’t play that way. And is a sight gag involving the Twitter bluebird symbol really all the filmmakers have to say about that off-the-rails Internet outlet?

You could argue that we shouldn’t fault an animated kid-flick just because it doesn’t attain the artistic heights of Inside Out or Zootopia or Finding Dory. You could point out that confining itself to the “world inside our smartphones,” it didn’t have a setting as ripe with possibilities as those films. But then, the LEGO movies have confined themselves to LEGOLAND, and look how well that has turned out.

There were ways that The Emoji Movie could have been similarly smart and satisfying, but the filmmakers just didn’t find them. Maybe they weren’t even looking.

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