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FILM REVIEW: THE EMOJI MOVIE Is A Pile of … *Smiley Emoji*

FILM REVIEW: THE EMOJI MOVIE Is A Pile of … *Smiley Emoji*

Alright, it’s not that bad. But it’s not very good either.

It seems silly to remind you of the old cliché that Hollywood is out of ideas, since I am sure you know filmmakers now look to apps like Angry Birds for movie concepts. Enter The Emoji Movie, one that is not even about an app or any game with a particular central character, but simply about a graphic way of communicating in modern technology, and you’d forgive a cynical critic for being skeptical. And while The Emoji Movie is not quite the pile of *poop emoji* that you may instinctively dismiss it as, you may likely feel disappointed after you realize that the project was not such a bad idea after all but that the exercise did not live up to its full potential.

If you are not a natural-born doubter of this picture, you must be walking in expecting some pretty funny stuff. After all, emoji are used throughout the web and on social media to some pretty hilarious effects, so you’d count on the filmmakers to scour for good jokes and/or to come up with some of their own. The film indeed has a truly exceptional voice cast that includes T.J. Miller (Deadpool) as the lead character, a “meh” emoji named Gene; James Corden (The Late Late Show) as Hi-5; an aptly named hand emoji; Anna Faris as Jailbreak, a hacker emoji; and Maya Rudolph as a somewhat demonic emoji named Smiler, who is, obviously, always flashing those pearly whites. But the other creative forces behind the project, written by Nacho Libre scripter Mike White, did not quite live up to the abilities of the cast or to expectations of exceptional comedy.

Rarely does The Emoji Movie truly elicit laughs that also evoke admiration. Although the film for the most part resists the facile poop emoji jokes (though that character is voiced with hilarious eloquence by Sir Patrick Stewart, so maybe they should have gone for more potty mouth), the film devolves into other types of groan-inducing quips and double entendre that are similarly uninspiring. For example, the old men of the bustling town of “Textopolis” are “smileys,” now antiquated graphical expressions of emotion. These old fogeys pitiful complain about pain in their “colon.” *Headdesk.* The doody high-fives his son proudly proclaiming to “being #2.” *Eyeroll.* Hi-5 makes a bevy of insufferable hand jokes, including calling himself a “knucklehead” and sassing “oh, snap!” It’s as unfunny as it sounds.

And broader satire about 21st Century uses of phone technologies fares not much better. Peeking into the Facebook app the emoji quip that everyone in there is “only talking about themselves.” Is that supposed to be particularly insightful or incisive?

The broader problem is that the story seems confused as to whom its target should be. The plot revolves around Gene being shunned from Textopolis by Smiler because he cannot keep a straight face (so to speak), the “meh” face he’s been destined to portray. (Each expression-based emoji are supposed to stay with the same face no matter what is happening to them, a task that Gene’s mom, Mary Meh, plays most excellently thanks to the inimitable talent of Jennifer Coolidge behind her.) That plot of course evokes an obvious theme, of kids being shunned for being non-conformists or outsiders who do not fit in, and how to deal with it. Jailbreak, meanwhile, is (minor spoiler alert) really another emoji escaping the gender normative roles expected of her and looking for adventures in the “cloud” of data outside of the smartphone.

These may not be particularly profound morales, and jokes about kids’ speech devolvement away from the written word may not be particularly profound observations, but they could be leveraged to amuse or interest adult audiences. But The Emoji Movie does not seem preoccupied with taking that low-hanging fruit, seeking refuge instead in flippant jokes (Internet trolls, Trojan Horses). One could also imagine a much riskier film, think Sausage Party style, that appealed to adult audiences by, say, exploring the contents of an adult dating app, or by “going there” after Gene naively asks Hi-5 what a teenager (the owner of the phone where the apps in the movie live) could be hiding from his parents in a locked app.

To be sure, director Tony Leondis could alternatively have picked a different path and made this a movie catered mostly to children, but that he does not do either. Children will not understand over 90% of the aforementioned slick tricks, and the caper of Hi-5 and Jailbreak trying to get Gene to the cloud to reprogram him before the phone’s owner deletes everyone is not exciting enough.

There are moments of laughter and other stuff to be rescued from The Emoji Movie. There is something inherently intriguing about how the movie is going to explore a new app or deal with technology jokes. After all, most of us spend hours and hours on these devices, so your curiosity is naturally peaked throughout. And, as mentioned, the voice cast is particularly funny, with Rudolph and Coolidge earning especially high marks. Finally, by the end you cannot fully resist the trite sentimentality and good intentions in which the whole thing is skinned, even if, as expected, the princess who declares emphatically she’s not waiting for a man to rescue her, predictably ends up abandoning her dream.

But neither is The Emoji Movie half as clever as it thinks. During one scene that takes place in the “real world,” a professor tries to make students see that ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics are interesting because they are similar to modern pictographic communication. Not only is the self-justification unnecessary, it’s unwelcome. Egyptian pictography was a rudimentary form of expression, one which required over 1,000 symbols to express ideas we can do with 24 or so today. Call me old-fashioned, but I for one do not see the value in deteriorating to such a method of visual communication. One can enjoy the film for what it is if it were better, regardless of one’s view of the decline of the use of complex language.

The film’s answer to all this is that, in the future, emoji will express not one but several emotions at the same time, making them inherently more fun and complex than a static Egyptian cartouche. I guess it’s almost an advertisement for a sequel–or perhaps a phone app patch–one revolving around these new type of emoji. Is that all we have to look forward from this space?


Grade: C+

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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