The grimacing face in Edvard Munch’s The Scream would be the emoji of choice if you were looking for a symbol to sum up critics’ response to The Emoji Movie. This new animated feature arrives trailing behind it some of the most hostile reviews of any
film this year. It is certainly lacklustre fare compared with recent animated features like Inside Out or the latest Despicable Me. Don’t expect many smiley expressions among parents forced to take their kids to it.
The case for the defence, which is a very skimpy one, is that The Emoji Movie isn’t noticeably that much worse than many other kids’ movies released in time for the holidays.
It’s cookie-cutter entertainment, utterly boxed in by its own ridiculous premise, but given our obsession with our smartphones, you can just about understand why the film-makers thought it might be a good idea to anthropomorphise the apps.
The film’s main character is a young emoji called Gene (voiced in breathless fashion by TJ Miller.) He lives in the bustling city of Textopolis, which is found inside a smartphone belonging to teenager, Alex.
Gene suffers from the same predicament as every almost other character in the movie, namely that he is utterly one-dimensional.
His trademark expression, “meh”, conveys complete indifference to the world. Gene, needless to say, is curious and enthusiastic. His excitable perspective on life is very different from what his blank face suggests.
When emojis are ready for work, they sit in squares and wait for their phone user to choose them.
Gene’s parents, Mel Meh (voiced in ultra-lugubrious, Eeyore-like fashion by ultra-mournful comedian Steven Wright) and Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge), don’t think he is mature enough to be on the grid.
They’re proved right when he panics, puts on a silly face and thereby makes Alex think the phone is broken.
Alex plans on taking the phone to the repair centre. If the handset gets wiped, that will mean, whoops apocalypse, that Textopolis itself will be erased. Even if it isn’t, the evil Smiler (Maya Rudolph), who has a rictus-like grin on her face at all times and is in charge of operations at the text control room, will probably have him deleted anyway.
Gene, therefore, embarks on an epic journey across the phone and through its many apps, toward a place where no emoji has ever gone before, namely the “cloud”, where he can be fixed.
Director and co-writer Tony Leondis must have realised he was narrowing down his options by choosing a lead character whose only expression was one of boredom.
He manages to generate some comedy from Gene’s parents panicking about their missing son – but doing so in such a monotone and low key fashion that they seem as if they’re not bothered at all. Similarly, Smiler keeps on grinning, even when she is at her most fraught and angry.
Gene’s travelling companions as he makes his way through app world are Hi-5 (James Corden) and the blue haired, punkish pirate princess Jailbreak (Anna Faris). The burgeoning romance between Alex and a girl in his class in the outside world is mirrored by that inside the phone, between Jailbreak and Gene.
The Emoji Movie is an example of a movie based on an idea which must have seemed very clever in theory but turns out to be cumbersome and deeply irritating in practice. Leonidis fills the film with as much noise and as many bright colours as possible so we won’t notice the shortcomings in its story.
There’s an excruciating dance-off in one app in which the heroes have to show off their disco moves to survive; a bizarre interlude in the world of Candy Crush, and a witty moment when the heroes throw off the bots who are chasing them by making them watch YouTube videos of kittens.
This is a kids’ film aimed at a family audience. There is therefore no room for sexting or obscenity. The world it conjures up is oppressively bland.
The closest we get to anything remotely subversive is when the poop emojis snigger and refuse to wash their hands after going to the toilet.
The film-makers would surely have been much better advised to make a movie aimed at teenagers, one that could tap into the sarcasm, cruelty, boastfulness, narcissism and surreal humour that emojis can be used to convey.
As it is, they’ve served up a story which is far more likely to be greeted with tears, frowns and thumbs-down signs than with smiles and kisses.