2017 | rated PG | Animated | directed by Tony Oeondis | 1hr 26mins |
Studio Pitch: The kids these days are on their phones all the time, what if instead of making something more interesting we just made a movie that’s just like their phones.
In the interest of fairness I’ll say that I’ve seen worse than The Emoji Movie. I suppose it’s no Manos: The Hands of Fate. It does have a beginning, a middle and an end. So there is that.
The movie isn’t funny or exciting or heartfelt. That’s a given. Then it keeps going, as if it intentionally scoured the four corners of the Earth to find the most aggressively obnoxious materials known to man, boiled them down and assembled them in a lab. It’s got a premise based on two of the most bewildering things in millennial culture: emojis and watching people play games. The voice headliners are three obnoxious people who Hollywood keeps trying to make “a thing” for mysterious reasons – T.J. Miller, Anna Faris and James Corden. There isn’t one second in the story that isn’t a carbon copy of any other hero’s journey movie about an outsider trying to find his way in a system and learning he had the right stuff all along. You can swap the emojis and settings out of this movie with almost anything and the story doesn’t change.
The Emoji Movie doesn’t even try to hit a family film audience. It’s a kid’s movie. Another brick in the monumental argument to combat the perception that all things animated are just for kids. Nobody is exactly going to confuse this for Kubo and the Two Strings. So if it’s a kid’s movie aimed at an under 10 age group, why does it even matter? Because this kind of movie is hardly the only thing on the block anymore. In a post-Pixar world, even if someone is just dropping a child in front of a TV to keep them occupied, there is no reason at all to sit them in front of mindless zero-calorie fast food trash when there is a plethora of options that will inspire the imagination.
And speaking of Pixar, imagine what the studio could do with this movie. The Emoji Movie fundamentally doesn’t understand how Pixar movies work. Pixar doesn’t create a story around talking things (insert fish, monsters, cars or toys), they create fully realized worlds for those objects. But we don’t even have to imagine a Pixar version of this movie. We already have one. The Emoji Movie, when you strip it down to the most basic framework is a cheap, lazy, uninspired 4th or 5th rate knock-off of Inside Out.
I almost hate to drag that movie into a dialog about this one but the comparison is night and day. The metaphorical road trip of a group of emotions that have consequences with a small child’s life outside them. Except the Emotions of Inside Out care for their host Riley, where the emoji’s of this movie have more of a procedural parasitic relationship with Alex, the boy who owns their phone. They want to do a good job for him as long as he doesn’t delete their app. The Emotions in Inside Out, for lack of a better phrase, are what they are. Sadness can’t help be sad and Anger can’t help but boil over. In the weirdest creative decision of the movie, the Emojis of this movie aren’t what they are. Happy, Sad and our hero Meh, aren’t actually those emotions but perform those tasks in their job as Emojis in “Textopolis”, the city inside the phone app where inside walking, talking Emojis are forced to express their assigned emotion. Meh, or Gene (Miller), doesn’t want to be Meh, he wants to be happy, which is even weirder the more you think about it because Gene only needs to be Meh while queued up to work on the phone. He can’t perform his job like everyone else because it is temporarily inconvenient so he goes on a trek to take down “the system” through the apps with a High Five hand (Corben) and a mysterious hacker named Jailbreak who… you’ll never guess… turns out to be… a girl (Faris).
During the course of 90 minutes that feels like 3 hours, Gene, High Five and Jailbreak run through actual apps instead of joke versions of said apps. We simply watch them play Candy Crush, then watch them play Just Dance (how that works on a phone is beyond me), then they run into Dropbox to avoid bots because it’s so secure, then get saved by the Twitter bird. My God, the shamelessness of it all is jaw-dropping. The movie treats it’s human character, Alex, so mechanically that when it reveals an email he wrote to a girl he likes, the email is simply lyrics from the Rihanna song “Diamonds”. Michael Bay gets justly slammed for the transparent product placement in his movies, but this is on a whole other level. In the hands of an Emoji Movie writer, Transformers would involve Bumblebee saving the day with a bottle of Bud Light after learning that Megatron is allergic to delicious refreshment.
The Emoji Movie is exactly the kind of under-the-radar product that talents like Chris Miller and Phil Lord might buy up and twist cleverly into something that subvert its existence. They turned a toy Lego that didn’t belong’s hero’s journey into a hilarious Orwellian social satire. Not here. Not only does this movie want to hock smart phones to kids like a drug dealer on the corner, it actually seems in awe of these apps. Like most teen horror movies recently, The Emoji Movie seems to be a movie geared toward young girls, written by out of touch 40 year old men. Sales men who seem to almost admire how text apps and Twitter have monopolized their children’s eye-balls. A lot of people might argue that the story is a clothesline to sell these apps, I think it might be the opposite: these hucksters wanted to pay tribute to these apps and feed off their popularity.