If The Lego Movie, The Angry Birds Movie and Trolls have taught us anything, it’s that trademark-concept movies don’t have to be awful. The Emoji Movie, on the other hand… is. Make no mistake: The Emoji Movie is no worse than your average bad kids movie (say, the 2016 anthropomorphized monstrosity The Secret Life of Pets), but it’s still pretty underwhelming. And the tackiness of its conceit only makes it easier to disdain.
Taking the structure of Inside Out and the existential angst of Divergent—so, the worst part of both films—The Emoji Movie brings life to those eggplants and smiley faces you text when you’re thirsty. And at first, it’s actually kind of charming. In a fun opening sequence in which the film proposes the concept of “Phone as a Universe”, the audience is introduced to Gene (T.J. Miller, who I can assume signed up for the film on title alone). Gene is a “meh” emoji, which means he is supposed to only be “meh” all the time. But Gene doesn’t want to be “meh” all the time! Gene wants to feel all sorts of emotions!!! After screwing up literally his only job, Gene goes on a journey throughout the phone to try and fix his “malfunction”.
Perhaps the worst thing that I can say about The Emoji Movie is that it’s lazy. Directed by Tony Leondis (known for some direct-to-dvd Disney sequels), and written by Leondis, Eric Siegel and Mike White, the movie feels like it could have used a couple dozen rewrites. Instead of showing us a world we know but in a different perspective, The Emoji Movie is overloaded with exposition, and the characters spend most of their time talking rather than doing anything. The film could have been a cool opportunity to reexamine a tool we know intimately, but chooses instead to just play the hits. Candy Crush, Facebook and The Cloud make appearances in a way that could have been written by an uninspired high schooler.
The Emoji Movie is a stupid concept, I know that. We truly do not need turn everything with a trademark into a Toy Story ripoff. But I am down—heck, excited—to watch some pretty stupid content so long as the filmmakers are willing to have fun with it. There are some okay or even good one-liners in here, but the movie races past the jokes like it’s ashamed of them, as if apologizing to the audience in advance. This awkward, self-conscious presentation, paired with safe, imagination-deficient aesthetics is a killer for a movie like this. In a just world, The Emoji Movie would be an ocean of joy where the audience would have no choice but to get wrapped up in the fun. Instead, the film just feeds ammunition to its critics. It seems like an out-of-touch cash-grab, which will make people even angrier at the movie than they would otherwise be.
The Emoji Movie creates a good justification for why Gene is the only multi-dimensional character (hint: they’re all emojis), but that still isn’t a great narrative tool. The overwhelming process of meeting hundreds of new characters—voiced by countless celebrities and comedians—is exciting at first. But as the story progresses what was amusing becomes tedious, and you realize that there is nowhere for the characters to go. Even the easily manipulated human characters aren’t real people. Given the diminishing returns built on each appearance, the film is forced to introduce new characters or die. As you’d expect, it suffers. Everyone knows everyone, and the phone world seems pretty small, despite being marketed as a universe upon itself.
Choosing a “meh” as the main character may prove to be the movie’s most inspired choice, because it’s exactly how I felt. Despite all of these aforementioned complaints, I still can’t get angry enough about this movie to give it more than a eh, whatever. I can’t think of a good reason to truly hate this movie, other than the fact that it’s an easy target and angry reviews get more clicks than ambivalent ones. Far from being the worst movie of the year (I don’t even think it’s the worst movie in theaters right now), The Emoji Movie is still not good. Like a real emoji, it doesn’t add anything to the conversation, but it doesn’t take anything away. At worst, it’s aggressively harmless.