The idea of a movie based around those hundreds — if not thousands — of little images that people endlessly send back and forth to each other via text messaging may have seemed ludicrous when first announced, but we’re now living in a world where a movie based on Lego toys is not only massively successful but critically acclaimed as well. The makers of The Emoji Movie — co-writer/director Tony Leondis and the team of craftspeople at Sony Animation — are clearly hoping for some of that same magic to happen for their film, which attempts to tap into the same pop culture savviness with overly familiar and not especially engaging results.
The Emoji Movie takes place inside a phone belonging to a typical phone-obsessed teen named Alex (voiced by Jake T. Austin), but Alex and his classmates are only peripheral to the story; we instead follows Gene (T.J. Miller), a “meh” emoji who cannot stick to his programming and instead exhibits a broad range of expressions that fall outside his job description. Gene and his fellow emojis all live in Textopolis, a colorful little city inside the phone where scores of emojis — including famous ones like the poop emoji (voiced by Patrick Stewart, who we could have used more of) — all report to work each day and wait to be called upon by Alex as he texts.
Gene’s inability to stay within his expressive parameters, however, wreaks havoc within Textopolis and, cast out from his job and community — and threatened with deletion — he bands together with a sassy “hacker” emoji named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) and the requisite goofy sidekick, Hi-5 (James Corden), to find a way through the phone to the cloud, where Jailbreak reckons they can get Gene’s programming adjusted so he can return to his “normal” life.
The best part of The Emoji Movie is the universe that Leondis, co-writers Eric Siegel and Mike White, and the design team create inside the phone: each app is a monolithic little planet onto itself, and the idea of worlds within worlds and hidden realities inside the smallest of objects holds a certain existential appeal to fans of speculative fiction. Some of the apps and characters that Gene and his friends encounter along the way are inspired — such as a persistent Just Dance app and a sinister Smiler emoji (Maya Rudolph) whose fixed grin become more unsettling as she becomes more unhinged — but most, like pointless trips through Candy Crush or Spotify, seem like blatant product placement.
Our three main characters and their quest are the weakest part of the whole scenario. The outsider looking to fit in and realizing that one has to be oneself is as overused a theme as an animated movie can muster these days, and Gene, Jailbreak and Hi-5 all go through their paces without their characters or vague motivations ever becoming really interesting. The plot borrows heavily from Toy Story, The Lego Movie, Trolls and others of their ilk, retreading the same thematic and narrative ground without ever making it seem particularly fresh or funny.
The children at the screening we attended seemed to enjoy the picture, and there are traces of richer storytelling and world-building throughout that indicate the potential it could have had. The Emoji Movie is not as offensive as something like last year’s horribly obnoxious and numbing Angry Birds movie, and it may pass the time amiably enough for the little ones. But parents may find themselves surreptiously reaching for their phones to find something more interesting to look at.
The Emoji Movie is out in theaters Friday (July 28).
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