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‘The Emoji Movie’ Review: We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Poop Emoji

The Emoji Movie
Sony

It would be fitting if there were no words to describe The Emoji Movie; if the ephemeral experience of consuming this unique entertainment could only be summarized in a couple of small pictures dashed off in a text message. But, no, there are plenty of words that can describe The Emoji Movie. Here are a few of them: Unfunny. Saccharine. Nonsensical. Painful. And, of course, crappy. (If you prefer the poop emoji, that works too.)

The poop emoji is a minor character in The Emoji Movie, voiced, per the credits, by “Sir Patrick Stewart.” He pops up occasionally to make doo-doo puns but otherwise remains in the background; the story focuses instead on a “Meh” emoji named Gene who is voiced by T.J. Miller. Between Poop and Gene Meh, the characters’ names provide a more succinct and effective Emoji Movie review than I ever could.

Inside the texting app of a shy high school freshman’s smartphone, all the emojis live in “Textopolis,” waiting for the moment when they’re selected for use and have to flash their one signature pose or face for a scanner. Gene was born different; he can make lots of different faces and express many different emotions, unlike his affectless parents (the well-cast Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge). In the regimented world of Textopolis, this marks Gene as an outsider, and after he botches a big text by making the wrong face (seriously; the plot hinges on a text message gone awry), Gene is labeled a “malfunction” and targeted for final deletion by the head of the emoji program, the aggressively cheerful Smiler (Maya Rudolph). Hoping to correct his programming glitch, Gene and another outcast emoji named Hi-5 (James Corden) go on the run in search of a mythic hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) who holds the key to their survival.

That’s what’s supposedly going on, but after a few scenes the characters’ motivations fade into the background while Gene, Hi-5, and Jailbreak wander into different phone apps for some of the most shameless product placement in any children’s entertainment since the lengthy McDonald’s commercial in the E.T. ripoff Mac and Me. In one scene, Gene gets trapped inside a game of Candy Crush; in another, everyone parties in the Just Dance app. Gene and his friends spend the whole movie searching for Dropbox; when they finally arrive, Jailbreak proudly declares they will be safe from Smiler’s evil “bots” inside because the bad guys are “illegal malware, and this app is secure.” Yay, Dropbox!

It’s possible to envision a decent movie about smartphone culture, and maybe even emoji, but it would require a script with a lot more satire and edge than is present here. A vaguely positive message about embracing differences aside, this thing is precisely what you would expect from the film division of a technology company that sold 15 million smartphones last year: A barely disguised advertisement that suggests that using a cell phone will make you popular and way more attractive to girls.

Trying to follow the film’s story is a fool’s errand; the inner-workings of this phone have no consistency or logic, which means characters have to constantly explain what they’re doing and why. Here’s the VIP section, that’s where the favored emoji hang out, now here’s a piracy app, where you find internet trolls and hackers for some reason, now here’s a firewall that requires a password that will be incredibly difficult for the characters to figure out but immediately obvious to every single person in the audience. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ never shows up, because this is The Emoji Movie and not The Emoticon Movie, but his spirit hovers over every frame.

Even with a screenplay co-written by Mike White (Freaks & GeeksSchool of Rock), The Emoji Movie’s humor never gets more subversive than a couple of vague jabs at Facebook, which are mostly offset by a lengthy tribute to the wonders of Instagram. (Oh, those beautiful filters.) Miller might be down to get paid globally for the role of Gene, but he doesn’t bring a ton of personality to the role, which is kind of a problem since Gene’s whole character is based on the fact that he’s supposed to have a ton of personality. Corden gives a high-energy performance as Hi-5, but his material is thumbs-down emoji. His main running gag is a brutally literal one; his character keeps puking up a candy corn and eating it over and over.

The film’s forced sentimentality is way funnier than any of the intentional jokes. At one point Jailbreak and Gene argue about whether to venture into the Memory Dump from Inside Out the phone’s trash to save Hi-5. Jailbreak says she’s only interested in looking out for Number One; Gene replies “What’s the point of being Number One if there’s no other numbers?” and Jailbreak stares at him in disbelief like she’s just reached the fourth level of the expanding brain meme. It was at this moment, when the music swelled as an emoji with a “cool” hacker skullcap and “funky” blue hair awoke to the dawning realization of a world outside herself that I began to question what I was doing with my life.

Although Gene initially tries to “fix” his personality, he eventually settles on a plan to escape the phone via “the cloud.” Where he will go and what he will do once he’s there is irrelevant; he just needs to get out of this hellish place and away from these monstrous emoji. To watch this movie is to empathize with that feeling on a deep and profound level.

Additional Thoughts:

-Although the phones the human characters use are not explicitly labeled as Sony products, it’s made clear they’re not iPhones when the teenage boy takes his broken device to the store for repairs and instead of waiting for two hours for an appointment they actually see him early.

-No animated movie outside the Cars franchise has raised more logistical questions about its strange setting than The Emoji Movie. Here is just one question I had: In one scene, Poop (and his son!) exit a restroom stall. When a sentient poop uses a toilet, what do they excrete? What is in a poop’s poop? On second thought, don’t tell me.

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