There’s a perpetual state of corporate cynicism present throughout the entire runtime of Sony’s The Emoji Movie. Rather than utilizing technology to tell a thought-provoking story, it settles into soulless promotional tactics masquerading as a children’s movie. Adult viewers can easily smell the insidious indoctrination techniques but kids are clearly the target audience. There’s no deep Pixar-esque exploration of familiar themes or the comforting nostalgia of Disney animation. They are substituted with shameless advertising plugs. Instead of scriptwriters and animators, the true “masterminds” behind this film seem to be the marketing division.
The plot such as it is takes place in a city within the smartphone of Alex, which is immediately a bland excuse to bandwagon off the popularity of Inside Out. Gene (T.J. Miller) is our main character, the “meh” Emoji who exists in a world where Emojis can solely express one emotion. Unfortunately for him, his first day on the job of working alongside his fellow sentient citizens goes haywire. Targeted for termination by Smiley (Maya Rudolph), Gene teams with High-Five (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris) to re-program themselves before they meet their untimely demise. Their travels take them across a variety of apps and internet jargon with the subtle promotion of an infomercial.
Anthropomorphizing inanimate objects is far from an original conceit in animated films. The rational for the existence of Emojis doesn’t stretch at all beyond the initial idea. Instead of compensating by innovating in other areas, The Emoji Movie opts to follow the “hero’s journey of self-discovery” template. Once Gene and company leave the city of Textopolis, the journey exists in a series of apps ranging from Candy Crush to Youtube. There’s no forward momentum or story advancement in any of these scenes. They are merely commercials that appeal to anyone familiar with the apps themselves. The Twitter bird makes an appearance without any reference to the actual site. As films like Pixels and Epic Movie have previously demonstrated, mere references are no substitute for clever humor.
On the surface, the themes of individuality and social roles are well worth exploring. There’s a lack of authenticity and truth whenever the film attempts to make any sort of statement. Gene’s annoying sidekick High-Five perfectly accentuates the muddled message of self-worth. He aspires to once again be a favorite of Alex but comes off as entirely selfish. There’s a scene in which we are introduced to the “losers” of the Emoji world, castaways stuck in a literal basement. Once the opportunity arises, High-Five throws his fellow losers under the bus and leaves them behind while he chases his own individualism. That’s an extremely mixed message within a movie that somewhat wants to express the importance of equality and self-worth. As an example of how far this movie descends into pandering, a mystery/moral is answered by a ham-fisted Rihanna song.
It’s difficult to fully articulate the story flaws in a film that seems adamant about throwing its own rules out the window. Because Jailbreak is a hacker, she is given a hackneyed ability to overcome any obstacle at any given time. Her technical prowess is far more substantial than her personality, which only extends to bland speeches about female empowerment. They’re even more superfluous given that the whole point of the movie is Alex trying to use his phone to hook up with a girl. In the same summer as Wonder Woman, it’s more disappointing that this film couldn’t take advantage of providing another strong female lead.
The Emoji Movie leaves no stone unturned in utilizing the worst elements of past animated films. The penultimate insult is ending the film with a big dance sequence, which is about as lazy a resolution as any. It’s a movie that’s impossible to recommend and devoid of any substance for younger viewers. If you’re looking for a substitute viewing experience chock full of bright colors and erratic animation, you’re better off staring at a smartphone for an hour and a half.