“The Emoji Movie” might seem like a brazenly cynical cash grab that only exists because a Hollywood studio saw an opportunity to brand the most universal human language since the invention of math (apologies to Esperanto), but Sony Pictures Animation’s big new blockbuster has represented something very positive since the start of this summer movie season: hope. Specifically, the hope that — for 90 beautiful minutes — Hollywood would spirit us away to a cinematic world that was somehow actually worse than real life. What a gift it would be in July 2017 to leave the multiplex and actually come up on our way back to reality, to feel the faint nausea of ascension for the first time all year and be reminded that it’s still possible for things to get better. Alas, blind optimism is a dangerous game in this day and age, and there is no such respite to be found here.
Make no mistake, “The Emoji Movie” is very, very, very bad (we’re talking about a hyperactive piece of corporate propaganda in which Spotify saves the world and Sir Patrick Stewart voices a living turd), but real life is just too hard to compete with right now. Not even a gaudy monument to late capitalism that masquerades as children’s entertainment — a film that bends over backwards to teach your kids that true happiness is always just an app away — can measure up to what’s happening off-screen. Not even a witless cartoon that unfolds like a PG-rated remake of “They Live” as told from the aliens’ POV feels as toxic as glancing at your Twitter feed or (God forbid) turning on the television news.
People, this is a classist family comedy in which James Corden — voicing an anthropomorphic hand named Hi-5 — stands on a pile of obsolete devices and forlornly sings the lyric “Nobody knows the touch screens I’ve seen,” and it’s still a significant improvement on the infernal nightmare that’s raging beyond the dark walls of the movie theater. It’s not even close. Indeed, the most distressing aspect about “The Emoji Movie” is that a spectacle this self-evidently soulless no longer feels like a new low. It doesn’t even leave a dent.
Shamelessly repurposing the premise of “Toy Story” for the age of texting (director Tony Leondis has said that he came up with the idea when he was thinking about toys and someone texted him an emoji), “The Emoji Movie” begins with a high school freshman named Alex. Alex has a problem: He doesn’t know how to talk to girls. Maybe he’s self-conscious about the fact that he still looks like he’s 10, or maybe he’s just one of those idiots who still tries to write his love notes with actual letters (“words aren’t cool” one character snarks at the start of a story that never argues otherwise). Literacy is for losers, Alex. Fortunately for our hero, he’s got a secret weapon hiding in his pants: a smartphone. And inside that smartphone there’s a whole world of trademarked ideograms just waiting to help him electronically harass his crush.
Just like that, we’re transported to the magical land of Textopolis (essentially just a communistic ripoff of Monstropolis from “Monsters, Inc.,” to continue the Pixar thievery). In Textopolis, each emoji is born with one very particular function, and their only purpose in life is to wait for their phone’s user to summon them into action. There’s no such thing as freedom or upward mobility; every emoji is simply endowed with the characteristics they represent. The laughing face is always laughing, even when it breaks an arm, the sad face is always sad, even when it wins the lottery, and so on. This leads to some very painful gags (the monkey emojis are always monkeying around!), and a small handful of amusing puns (the old-fashioned emoticons are elderly citizens, one of whom gripes about his sore colon).
How exciting to enter a film world in which all of the characters literally just tell us who they are over and over and over again like they’re not physical manifestations of the feelings that define them! The brilliant Maya Rudolph adds all sorts of passive-aggressive texture to Smiler, the homicidal smiley face who lords over this place, it’s just too bad that every single one of her lines is some variation of “can’t you see how happy I am?” Yes, yes we can. Your body is a giant smile with legs.
But Gene (a very bored T.J. Miller) is different. He’s one of a kind. Like all of the major characters here, he boasts a quirk that makes him unique to Alex’s phone / original enough to avoid any lawsuits. A “meh” emoji who can’t help but love everything about life in Textopolis, Gene is constantly wearing other expressions. One second he’s smiling, the next he’s got hearts in his eyes. His apathetic parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge as Mel and Mary Meh, respectively) might seem like they’re just shrugging this off, but they’re actually horrified by the idea that their son may not be as meh as he was mehnt to be. What’s going to happen when Alex tries to send “meh” to his crush, and a fart cloud is sent to her phone instead? BAD THINGS, that’s what. In fact, Gene’s emotional instability puts his entire world at risk, as Alex makes an appointment to restore his malfunctioning phone at his local generic-brand Genius Bar. This is a real movie. This actually happens.
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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.
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