It's about emojis. I mean, it would have to be. It's about how emojis form townships right there inside your damn phone, and in the particular case of a 14-year-old boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin), that township is ruled with benevolent tyranny by 😃 (Maya Rudolph), not that it takes much of a tyrant to force the bipedal emoji-homunculi to do their work: every one of them is capable of expressing only one emotion (though not, apparently of feeling only one emotion, which renders the whole metaphor pretty much immediately moot), and throws themselves into the task of being scanned when ever their user needs them, with the correct mood plastered on their hideous round body-faces. All except for one Special Chosen Emoji, that is: the son of a male 😒 named Mel (Steven Wright) and a female 😒 named Mary (Jennifer Coolidge), which you'd suppose would make our boy Gene (T.J. Miller) a 😒 too, but in fact he's a 😁😍😢😱😊😂 . And this kind of divergent emoji will not stand in 😃's town, so after Gene fucks up the giant emoji scanning shrine, she prepares to have him murdered. It is only thanks to the egocentric ✋ (James Corden) that Gene is able to skip town and break into the rest of the phone, looking for a rogue emoji hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who will help him get reprogrammed so that he can fit into emoji society. Or learn to embrace his unique identity and not let society's rules get him down, man. One of those things. Betcha can't guess which.
As a merciless parody of the idiotic depths to which children's animation will permit itself to sink in applying boilerplate plot formulations to anything that can be pinned down for five minutes, The Emoji Movie is a killer piece of satire that blows something like last summer's Sausage Party right out of the water, a stiletto striking into the heart of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy. Unfortunately, The Emoji Movie is in dead earnest. Or at least as earnest as something this jaw-droppingly cynical could be.
The most generous thing we could say about the movie is that it's a soulless, hugely ineffective attempt to copy Inside Out without having one-tenth of a fucking clue how to do that film's subtle world-building, or any amount of world-building that won't immediately ring false to somebody who has actually used a smart phone once in their lifetimes. The least generous thing we could say is that it's Foodfight! with better rendering, a though that came upon me when the screenplay by director Tony Leondis & Eric Siegel and Mike White stops short to helpfully mention Dropbox's top-notch security features. I am also not confident that a 14-year-old boy would have Dropbox on his phone, but what do I know about the kids these days?
Then again, what do Leondis & Siegel and White know about kids these days? Not fucking much, to judge from the inept way that they feebly grab at various chunks of Reddit, Twitter, and Tumblr slang and reference points (and for that matter, if I can recognise the references, they're certainly out of date). The winner for most magnificently off-point is when ✋ randomly says to a passing 👵🏻, "Bye Felicia!" which perhaps stands out to me more on account of having watched The Emoji Movie in the second half of a double feature with Girls Trip, in which that very phrase is brought up as a thing that makes white people sound like clueless assholes. Oh, how very true that turns out to be.
But anyway, the whole thing feels like somebody's very nice Aunt Gladys, bless her heart, spent a fruitful half-hour on Facebook trying to figure out how The Youths talk, and then attempted to to use her findings to spice up Thanksgiving dinner. We do not hate Aunt Gladys. We love Aunt Gladys. But we are mortified beyond belief to be in the same room as Aunt Gladys.
The whole thing is an exercise in criminal levels of ignorance about anything, but worse still is how grotesquely boilerplate it all is, going through the exact plot of all the most boring children's movies, without any of the flickers of inspiration that salvages some of them. Like, Storks had its bizarre sense of humor, Hotel Transylvania had the novelty of angular Genndy Tartakovsky character animation in 3-D (incidentally, The Emoji Movie is preceded, in its theatrical release, by a Tartakovsky-directed Hotel Transylvania short that's certainly the best thing about the experience), The Secret Life of Pets had fun production design, Rock Dog had a certain car-crash fascination due to its unique production history. The Emoji Movie has not a solitary compensating element other than the fact that you could do a lot worse than Sony Pictures Animation for the basic rudiments of texturing, smooth character movement, color design, and effects animation. "It's not the most abysmal-looking animated film of 2017!" is hardly a rallying cry, though (but to be fair, the last third of 2017 does look like it's going to have some utter garbage, including Sony's own The Star - but let us come to that when we must, and not a minute before).
A plot that every parent already has committed to memory, far too many languid potty jokes for anybody to feel good about, a fantasy plot that walks right up and slaps you in the face with how much it doesn't work within the real world that all of us experience (the reason that Toy Story and Inside Out work so magnificently is because "my toys are real people" and "my brain has little people inside it doing all the work" are both eminently graspable concepts that pre-date the films. A giant computerised hand that takes several seconds to generate single emoji? No, I do not believe that any of us have ever fancied that's how our phones work). Everything you ever hated about an animated feature is available here, though at least the pop songs that trigger the plot-advancing dance party make diegetic sense (it's a teenager's phone, after all). And it's so goddamn stupid. Emojis with little spindly spider legs living and loving and apparently breeding in Textopolis, the little city living inside your phone RIGHT NOW - this is not charming. It is so not charming that it reads more effectively as a satire of charm, and the film refuses to commit to this just as thoroughly as its early gags about how we're all addicted to our phones turns out to just be plausible deniability for a feature-length ad for Candy Crush and Spotify. It's dire consumerist propaganda not even dressed up in a fun plot, and it all adds up to the summer's biggest steaming pile of 💩 (Patrick Stewart).