Allow me recount to you the two instances where I laughed during The Emoji Movie. The first is as our heroes encounter the Just Dance app, and the big smiling avatar of that game encourages them to dance their way through to the other side of a chasm. When their playing activates sounds and displays on the phone’s interface, the phone’s owner deletes the app in frustration. This causes the app to collapse around the emojis, including the game’s mascot as she writhes in the most unimaginable pain of being erased from existence. The second time I laughed was when we visit the phone’s trash, and we see that same mascot curled in a ball on a garbage pile, mascara running down her face, muttering to herself that she just wants to dance as she awaits her final, permanent death. These are not scenes played for comedy, but they stand in such stark, tone-deaf contrast to the rest of the film’s bright, friendly aesthetic that it’s hard not to find a sick sense of schadenfreude in what is an otherwise tediously boring film. I apologize to the children at my screening for the sudden outbursts.
Ostensibly, The Emoji Movie is the story of three emojis traveling from the messenger app on their phone to the mythical Cloud so that they may each get something to feel more complete. The inexplicably named Gene (T.J. Miller) is a “meh” emoji who has an equally inexplicable ability to make other faces than the one assigned to him and wishes only to be normal; Hi-5 (James Corden) is a gross anthropomorphized hand who wants nothing more than to be hacked back into the phone’s favorites category; and Jailbreak (Anna Faris) is a hacker with a mysterious past who promises to help the pair in exchange for using Gene’s face-changing ability to get past a firewall into the Cloud.
The lessons of this story are as inevitable as they are hackneyed, though they operate on a weird double standard. Gene’s arc culminates with the confidence to express the wide range of emotions afforded him, whereas Jailbreak discovers that her assigned role within emoji society is right for her and that her adopted persona as a hacker is ingenuine to her true self. This all comes across as cloyingly ill-considered as Jailbreak’s dialogue insistently inserts faux-feminist representation rhetoric, only to have the all-is-lost moment of the script come as she rejects Gene’s romantic advances, causing Gene to lose his unique expressiveness so that Jailbreak can return to him in the third act out of… guilt, I suppose? Consciously sexist it doesn’t appear to be, but subtextually it is problematic as all get-out that the female lead gives up her autonomy to be a supporting player for the male lead as he discovers his own.
Alas, the purpose of The Emoji Movie is not to be an enlightened take on gender parity, and the fact that it tells a barely coherent story where the mechanics of the world within the smartphone are constantly suspect only tokenly masks the film’s true raison d’etre: product placement. Real world apps litter the scenes of this film, from YouTube to Facebook to the aforementioned Just Dance. When you get right down to it, there is little to The Emoji Movie beyond acting as a walking tour of the wonderous world of social media brand management, shining logos in front of kiddies with the intent to indoctrinate them into accepting their platforms of choice as wonderlands where their emoji friends can travel for theirs and the children’s amusement. It would be insidious were it not so ineptly obvious, and many a parent is going to regret succumbing to their child’s demands to purchase a ticket, for the film in turn encourages further consumerist indoctrination.
I wish I could at least say that some of the film’s many attempts at humor land, but uniformly the writers pick the most pathetically obvious puns about technology and poop—the latter of which are largely delivered by Patrick Stewart of all people, whose character Poop is once seen in a chair shouting “red alert”—and the delivery of every single one of these lines sounds so flat and bored that it’s clear that almost nobody cared to save the film from itself. The only one putting in any effort seems to be James Corden, whose vocal work is as bouncy as his character, but doesn’t have the timing to make any of his cringe-worthy lines work. If there’s any image that sums up the movie perfectly, it’s of that Just Dance avatar curled up and crying in the dump. It’s a horrifying scene set atop a pile of trash, but the pure absurdity of its existence is enough to make one laugh in shock and disbelief, at least in that one moment. The symbolism of that moment will stick with me far more than the stale and stilted messages The Emoji Movie intended.