So, with Smiler on his tail, Gene sets off on an epic adventure to reach the cloud and fix his mistake. But no emoji could ever make such a journey alone, and so he’s joined by James Corden’s high-five. The Samwise Gamgee to Gene’s Frodo Baggins, Hi-5 is sad that he’s no longer selected enough to rate a spot in Alex’s “frequently used” section, and he’s desperate to find a workaround. Lucky for him, a purple-haired punk emoji named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) is eventually roped into the fellowship, and she can hack her way into anything, as you can clearly infer from her anti-establishment attitude and her badass wool hat.
And so our non-conformist trio quests through the recesses of Alex’s phone, avoiding his treasure troves of pornography (the existence of which is unsurprisingly referenced by the hand emoji) but making sure to hit up every popular app along the way. Who needs the Mines of Moria when you can awe at breathtaking fantasy locales like Instagram and Dropbox (“the data here is encrypted, so it’s secure!” Jailbreak volunteers). Spoiler alert: The Twitter bird swoops in to save the day like the eagles at the end of “The Return of the King.” At one point, these brave heroes traverse a body of water by riding a boat down Spotify streams. Make sure to get a premium subscription, or you might get shipwrecked by an ad! Where “Toy Story” encouraged kids to use their imaginations, “The Emoji Movie” only encourages them to use their parents’ credit card.
Honestly, that’s all pretty much par for the course these days. Hollywood animation has been a race to the bottom for a few years now, and the studios can hardly be bothered to disguise their commerce as art. The colors are bright, the jokes are broad, and the backgrounds are sterile. “The Emoji Movie” isn’t an anomaly, it’s the inevitable byproduct of ghoulish pap like “The Angry Birds Movie” and “Sing.” It’s not the most painful of these standard-lowering blockbusters — the film’s sheer blatantness can be compelling in its own right — but it’s definitely the most incoherent and contradictory.
This is a film about the power of self-expression, and yet it exists to advertise a limited visual language that people don’t have the power to expand upon or customize. It tells kids that they can be whatever they want to be, as long as they want to be something that Apple thought to include in their latest update. What do you want to be when you grow up? The choices are airplane pilot, Santa Claus, and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. Jailbreak laments the fact that, for a long time, the only female emoji was a princess. Great news: There are now like four other options.
It gets worse. There are so many life lessons contained within this sloppily tied knot of faux-inspirational morals that they all tend to cancel each other out. And yet, there are definitely less pleasant ways for kids to learn that self-expression is something you have to pay for, and that anyone who can’t afford a smartphone isn’t even worth acknowledging. Once upon a time, something like “The Emoji Movie” would be regarded as a dire commentary on the culture that produced it. These days, the culture so consistently comments upon itself that something like “The Emoji Movie” just makes you wonder what’s left to be said. Yes, this is ugly swill that will make parents daydream about going to back work, but at least the poop emoji is wearing a bowtie. At least he’s a good dad (yes, the poop emoji has a son). At least he knows that he stinks.
“The Emoji Movie” opens in theaters on Friday, July 28.