Originally published in The Edge
If you’ve ever looked at a smartphone and felt an inexorable urge to watch an anthropomorphic meh face voiced patronisingly by Silicon Valley’s T. J. Miller, yearning to follow his agonisingly boring parents into life in a Celebrity Squares box ready to be scanned into action whenever selected by the user, blighted with the ability to express other emotions through a condition discovered inside Instagram to be hereditary – joins a hand-shaped James Corden (being the kind of James Corden that bumbles with faux enthusiasm to make The Late Late Show intolerable) and an exiled princess (Anna Faris, whose script is littered with bogus jargon to make the charade seem somewhat plausible) who has somehow set up a new life in a neighbouring “hacking app” that resembles The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie’s Thug Tug in a tedious dawdle out of Textopolis towards self-acceptance that stops off at several product placement segments, featuring Christina Aguilera as a Just Dance instructor and Candy Crush thinking he was one of its sweets, before climaxing with the phone’s teenage owner booking a next-day Genius Bar appointment and ignoring incessant irritation from the device just because mid-restore it spontaneously displayed an expressive yellow blob to send to the girl he liked enough to pay tribute to with his Dropbox password (as the hand had predicted having plucked a discarded email draft of Rihanna lyrics from the bin after tastelessly reworking a slavery-era spiritual to fit its own plight), you probably don’t deserve the medium of film. But here we are.
The optimist in me entered the theatre hoping The Emoji Movie to be at least some kind of Toy Story revamp, carving a similarly endearing tale of what goes on when our playthings are going unobserved. After all, as Gene (Miller) reminds us with the sort of condescending monologue that at the top that would make the Simon Sineks of this world proud about the perceived faults of our generation, these 21st century hieroglyphs are more vital to human existence than oxygen because – and I quote – “who has the time to type out entire words?” Unfortunately, it seems like writer/director/creator/three-part voice actor/damned hell purveyor Tony Leondis suffered such lethargy when penning it in what one can only assume was five scrambled minutes after getting flung 50 of Sony’s millions to clumsily birth the thing.
Regarding the astonishing set of negative reviews from its earlier US launch, a studio executive stressed that the film was targeted towards those under 18, thereby insinuating that the olds – what with the taste and dignity they’d be surrendering by acknowledging this rubbish – wouldn’t get it. However, as it played to a room far busier with families and disgruntled reviewers than I care to admit, the only moments that made me remember that other people were enduring it with me came as eager voices exclaimed the apps they recalled from their own (far more intellectually stimulating) phone usage. The solitary thing that almost raised a giggle was a shot of Alex (Jake T. Austin), the owner of this monstrosity, scrambling for the silence toggle as Major Lazer’s ‘Bubble Butt’ played out loud thanks to Gene and companion-turned-love interest-because-of-course Jailbreak (Faris) “riding the streams of Spotify” in their quest for the promised utopia of Dropbox, where she could have supposedly accessed some source code to rectify Gene’s vague semblance of character. But instead she violates a number of Twitter’s brand guidelines by summoning its bird logo to fly them away from firewall-breaching henchmen sent by the genuinely villainous emoji ringleader Smiler (Maya Rudolph).
Any attempt The Emoji Movie makes to make its environment immersive is quickly snapped by either by cringeworthy dialogue tedium, some attempt to cast a glaringly obvious yet wholly flat gag based on a character that more often than not is poo-shaped and voiced by Patrick Stewart, or a scene literally taking place inside the kind of product placement that I’m sure is still illegal in the UK. In addition to the setups mentioned prior, there’s also glimpses into WeChat (to look at stickers and give Chinese audiences one more app to shout out about) and YouTube (where Gene’s parents find that Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen chap on a giant screen). As emojis by their very nature are one-dimensional, with the Unicode Consortium expanding the range purely so that every situation, emotion, object, flag, and penis euphemism may one day possess its own bespoke glyph, perhaps it was naïve to expect their opus to be anything but.
Ultimately, Textopolis is a world fantasised from nothing and without good reason. Its citizens seem to be born with single purposes – to stand and be themselves on command – although none bar a flustered Gene are capable of being anything else. These characters live in a bustling metropolis, but every other app they wander through (as if a phone’s operating system was enough of a multidimensional physical object that you would traverse it) appears built entirely for purpose. Here, that purpose is nothing but advertising. What could potentially have been an affable kids tale with a cast naturally ripe for visual humour and some bog-standard messages of friendship or self-belief simply fails to entertain, stimulate, educate, or acknowledge the fundamental practicalities of how its universe – i.e. the bit we apparently gawk at so much that this kind of tripe is a viable concept – functions. That The Emoji Movie is possibly the most unfulfilling way you could squander 86 minutes this summer is hardly a surprise. Quite how poor it is, however, is another thing entirely.
Distributed in the UK by Sony Pictures. Certificate U.