Review: 'The Emoji Movie' Is Cold, Corporate, & Unfunny

A blatant rip-off of Toy Story, The LEGO Movie, Wreck-It Ralph and a dozen other animated films that actually tried, The Emoji Movie is a soulless 90 minute commercial for Sony products. Unlike those other actually creative movies, The Emoji Movie is about the importance of texting. Specifically, the importance of using simplistic pictures of happy faces to text.

The “film” follows Gene (voiced by TJ Miller), a “meh” emoji who wants to use more than one emotion to express himself, which is frowned upon in Textopoilis, where all the emojis live and work for Alex, their phone’s owner. (Alex, for the record, is his own special brand of garbage that I’ll get to later.) Textopolis is comprised of nothing but the laziest puns and half-ideas. Worst of all, the movie is written in such a way that each flatlining joke is accompanied with a line about how funny it was. It seems to be aiming for wit or subversive silliness, but fires its shots so lazily that it all just lands firmly at annoying.

Faced with the threat of deletion for being different (what a very subtle piece of commentary) Gene goes on a typical hero’s journey to “fix” himself, and become the mono-emotive “Meh” that society wants him to be. The strangest thing is, there is clearly a scrap of an emotionally engaging idea here. At its most basic structural level, this could have been a concept if any thought or effort was put into it. But instead Sony made a Sony ad.

On his quest, Gene meets Hi-5 (James Corden), a high-fiving hand emoji that is also an outcast after being bumped from Alex’s favorite emojis list. Remember when I said that this movie was never funny and was instead shockingly annoying? Well, Hi-5 is the king of this. This character is Rob Schneider-level infuriating as he interjects his grating catchphrases and pop culture references every couple seconds to make sure that you are never in danger of actually enjoying this movie. Together, our heroes travel through the various apps of Alex’s phone, trying to find Jailbreak (Anna Farris), a hacker emoji who they believe can help get them fixed in the mythical cloud.

Jailbreak is a very special kind of Underwritten Female Role, where she constantly talks about how she is a strong character with defined traits and objectives, as opposed to actually being any of those things. Much like Hi-5’s use of hashtags, Jailbreak uses modern feminist ideals as a catchphrase, and it’s really off-putting. For example, there’s one scene where she just explains why mansplaining is problematic to society. It’s not a joke. It doesn’t do anything to further the scene. It’s just a nonsequitur comment about how women’s opinions matter… and while it comes out of nowhere, it’s still a decent point. However, The Emoji Movie does not actually follow these ideals expressed by its female lead. For example, let’s circle back to Alex being a garbage person.

Alex is not only a studio executive’s idea of what a teenager is, but he’s also just a perfect personification of why people don’t like millennials. Alex’s big conflict is that he likes the prettiest girl at his school, but lacks the confidence to text her the right emojis. He doesn’t want to talk to her in person, he doesn’t even want to have a conversation with him through text. Instead, he believes that sending her a good emoji will win her heart, and this movie seems to agree with that idea. The lead human female character has no discernable character traits of her own. She would love our hero if he could only send her the right picture of a happy face. We only even learn her name because Alex has used it as a password in one of the apps the emojis explore. It’s actually really fascinating to me how much the filmmakers don’t care about logic. Their lead female emoji does nothing but talk about feminism, and then their human subplot seems to go out of its way to ignore every word of that. They wrote a female character who expresses the dangers of ignoring what women have to say, and then ignored what she said. It’s insane.

Gene, Hi-5, and Jailbreak spend the next 40 minutes or so hopping from app to app, in scenes that I suppose where supposed to play as creative looks at popular games and services from a clever and whimsical new point of view. In reality, these moments are merely transparent bits of product placement for the smartphone apps licensed by Sony. Every misstep our heroes make leads to a “hilarious” glitch happening with Alex’s phone, like sending confusing images to his contacts or playing loud music at inappropriate times. The stakes are raised when Alex makes an appointment with tech support to have his phone reprogramed. Will the emojis make it to the cloud in time, or will Textopolis be deleted and refreshed?

The thing is, it should be deleted. Setting aside my own utter distain for this movie, if a person’s phone was suffering the malfunctions that Alex’s is, it would be a deeply broken cell phone that needs to be fixed. This is one of the biggest problems with The Emoji Movie. When technology doesn’t work the way it’s designed to, it is undeniably broken. Unlike exploring the secret lives of toys like Pixar did, when exploring tech, there is a black and white, yes or no, binary to whether or not something is working or isn’t. This isn’t like the squeaky toy losing its squeak. This is his phone not working. It’s hard to get emotionally invested in a world that I myself would go and get fixed, much like Alex intends to.

The human teenager characters are constantly on their phones, texting emojis to each other, speaking in hashtags, taking selfies, and enjoying the wonderful products that Sony has to offer. At one point they actually express their dislike for words. Obviously this is supposed to be a humorous exaggeration of the world that modern teenagers occupy, but there has to be some center of truth to any satire, and if this is a mirror of the world we live in, then I am deeply sad. I suppose it’s a nice change of pace to be bothered by an element of society’s downfall that doesn’t have to do with our modern political climate. Again, though, if that’s the most positive thing I have to say about this movie, there’s a problem here.

Ultimately, the majority of The Emoji Movie is cold and corporate, unfunny and uncreative, and mostly just hard to sit through. That being said, every now and then the movie becomes so maddeningly misguided that it crosses into being somewhat surreal, and those moments are rather enjoyable. For example, there’s a rather serious subplot about an emoji marriage in jeopardy, and whether or not these two emojis should get an emoji divorce, and this scene is kind of incredible in the way that sometimes nightmares can be. Otherwise, beyond these occasional instances of blind absurdity, The Emoji Movie falls incredibly flat.

I don’t even know what audience Sony was shooting for here. Is it teenagers like Alex? Is it younger children? Is it adults who will understand the pop culture references? I honestly struggle to imagine any of these groups enjoying more than 10 minutes of this. We, as a species, can do better. We can make better animated movies than this. Movies that won’t perpetuate harmful ideas. Maybe even movies that have something to say other than “Buy Sony.”

The Emoji Movie is a bleak, cynical, and corporate waste of an idea that left me feeling deeply sad.

1 out of 5