Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Emoji Movie

From its official announcement, The Emoji Movie became the target of ridicule on the internet. This sentiment intensified throughout the marketing campaign until its 2017 release, when viewers and critics ripped it to shreds. Despite having a morbid curiosity about the film, we didn’t watch it at the time because we refused to pay money to see it. This changed when it finally aired for free on FX, but we still didn’t watch it until we found the right opportunity a few months later. Actually watching it did nothing to sway us from the general consensus of the film, as we felt absolutely nothing while watching it.

Gene (T.J. Miller) is a meh emoji living in Textopolis, a digital city inside a phone controlled by its user, Alex (Jake T. Austin). Gene is capable of making multiple expressions, despite being raised by two meh emojis, and wants to prove his worth on his first day at the text center. Alex gets a text from his crush, Addie (Tati Gabrielle), and wants to send her an emoji, but Gene panics and causes Alex to send an emoji with a panicked expression, which wrecks the text center. The head emoji, Smiler (Maya Rudolph), concludes that Gene is a “malfunction” and must be deleted, but Gene escapes. With the aid of Hi-5 (James Corden), Gene sets out to find a hacker who will help him become the meh emoji he’s meant to be.

Gene (T.J. Miller) accidentally makes the wrong face.

The story has an admittedly interesting concept at its core, exploring the world inside a phone, but is used solely as a backdrop for a plot that’s, to put it simply, bland and unoriginal. It doesn’t try to take any risks and instead plays it safe by directly copying story beats from Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out and The LEGO Movie without any of the heart or nuance of those films. Moments feel like they happen because they have to, not because the characters’ actions organically led to those moments. Then, of course, it constantly beats you over the head with its “be yourself” message while acting as though the audience can’t fathom the idea. Granted, the films it’s copying have a similar message, but those films actually explored the deeper subtleties behind the message before having an epiphany that actually felt earned.

The Emoji Movie also tries its hand at social and political commentary, but falls completely flat on its face. The female lead and obligatory love interest, Jailbreak (Anna Faris), is also used to randomly espouse feminist messages that, while well-intentioned, are very poorly executed. It’s also baffling how despite marketing itself directly towards children, the film’s idea of social commentary takes cold and cynical jabs at its own audience by portraying kids and teens as incapable of communicating with words, written or verbal. The closest the film gets to any semblance of depth is making a fairly insightful connection between emojis and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but this goes nowhere just so we can hear a background character talk about how words are stupid.

What I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching, however, is how the film destroys itself with its own internal logic. For instance, it seems that it shouldn’t really matter what emotions an emoji makes outside of work, as long as they make the correct one when scanned at the text center. Other emojis, like Poop (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Hi-5 for instance, make other expressions and yet there’s no threat of erasing them from the phone. It also seems that, when you stop to think about it, Alex didn’t really need to worry about what to text Addie. If he has her phone number, he clearly got far enough talking to her to obtain it and he actually does talk to her at one point in the film, so he could’ve just done that.

Alex (Jake T. Austin) didn't really need to
worry so much about what emoji to send.

One thing that really stuck out for me from the beginning of the film, however, was that the emojis are shown with the ability to walk in the space between the apps. With this in mind, they could easily have just walked to their final destination instead of travelling through the various apps, which only served to stretch out the 86-minute runtime and allow time for the film’s very brazen product placement to shine like a phone screen in the middle of the night.

Speaking of the product placement, it’s very clear that a few companies paid a lot of money to get a spot in the film, at the detriment of the story. For instance, the movie pretty much takes a break twice so that the characters can play Candy Crush and Just Dance Now for the flimsiest reasons imaginable; the latter also led to cross-promotion through the actual Just Dance games, with an alternate routine for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! where Gene and Jailbreak are the coaches. Some of the more plot-critical apps include Instagram, Spotify, Twitter and Dropbox, though they also take a shot at Facebook. There’s also a moment where Gene and co. go to YouTube and use a cat video to trap the bots that are after them, but the first video that comes up is “PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)” by Pikotaro. This might’ve made sense to the studio at the time, since the song came out nine months before The Emoji Movie, but nowadays it feels like a dated choice. Then again, any video they could’ve chosen would’ve instantly dated the film anyway.

The Emoji Movie takes a break to let the characters play Just Dance Now;
L-R: Akiko Glitter (Christina Aguilera), Meh, Hi-5, Jailbreak

Aside from some particularly cringy dialogue from the characters, especially Hi-5, The Emoji Movie also makes a poor attempt at humor. Just about every joke is very surface-level, especially when it comes to Poop, and I remained more or less stone-faced the whole time. Only a couple jokes came close to really working, but the most they ever got out of me was a quick exhale and nothing more.

With all of that said, I think the premise could’ve been salvaged with the right direction. One route would be to put the focus more on the human world and explore what their life is like with more emoji-heavy communication. The other route would be to still explore the world of the cell phone, but turn into more of an adventure by giving the emojis a greater problem to solve. Either way, taking lazy and unnecessary shots at children and teens should never have made its way into the movie.

While the story and plot of the final film are both absolutely awful, the animation itself is insultingly good. While I’m not a fan of the character designs for the emojis, everything moves very fluidly and the designs are all clearly distinguishable from one another. The physics also work within the world they set up and there are some subtle effects, like moving frozen water droplets in a photo.

I am, however, torn on the voice acting. The most baffling casting choice is certainly Sir Patrick Stewart as Poop, though I also question just how the studio had roped everyone else into participating in this film. The best I can say about the performances is that they feel appropriate for the characters, but it can get grating hearing Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge, Mel and Mary Meh respectively, give the same emotionless delivery for every single line.

If you want a good animated film with a lot of care and attention, don’t watch The Emoji Movie and go for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from the same studio, instead. If you want to laugh at a bad animated film or learn exactly how not to write one, you could watch The Emoji Movie, but be prepared to feel nothing but “meh” the whole time.

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