The plot of Sony’s The Emoji Movie basically boils down to sentient emojis from within an iPhone working together to convince the phone’s owner, a tween boy, to use the perfect emoji to communicate his complicated feelings to a cute girl in a text message, and I kept thinking, “Yeah, but he could also just talk to her, or maybe send an actual text message, one not dependent on a damn emoji.”
Because I’m old.
And so not the target audience for the movie.
And never would have seen this forgettable 86 minutes of pure fluff if not for my 4-year-old niece’s borderline-scary insistence that I come with her and her brother and dad to a preview screening at the local drive-in last night. She proved to be the true star of the show with her frequent “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing this!” and “This is my new favorite part of the movie!” pronouncements rivaling Agnes from Despicable Me’s “It’s so fluffy!” in freakish excitement. However, by the end even she was struggling to care, spending a good couple of minutes walking around in my flip-flops (which looked like clown shoes on her) to amuse herself while the climax of the movie played out on the drive-in screen behind her.
Of course, “you couldn’t even hold a 4-year-old’s attention” is not necessarily as damning as I want it to be because, well, have you been around little kids these days? They have the attention span of gnats (I suddenly feel the need to add “and they won’t stay off my lawn” since I’m morphing into Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace before your very eyes). Thankfully, the steady churn of animated movies coming out of the Hollywood factory, delivering at least one new kids movie every 2 months, has been a godsend to parents who can rely on the certainty of always having something new to take their kids to where they’ll hopefully sit down and shut up for a couple of hours. If these movies happen to come from Disney, either Disney Animation or Pixar, it’ll probably be something you will enjoy just as much if not a little more than the kids. If it comes from anyone else then you hope for the best but learn to live with the worst.
The Emoji Movie is the worst. It blatantly rips off Wreck-It Ralph and Inside Out, makes astonishingly poor use of T.J. Miller (as the lead character Gene, an emoji capable of expressing more than one emotion even though Miller’s uninspired vocal delivery indicates he didn’t get that memo), offers up the dullest and least-inspired animation possible (far too much of it looks like warmed over Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures) and completely bungles its potential message. As Forbes’ Scott Mendelson put it in his review, “There are hints of a more poignant movie, hints of a rather upfront metaphor for young gay kids coming out of the closet, but they get trampled over by conventional plotting that almost seems designed to bury its subtext.” Instead, it’s just a remarkably bland movie with a remarkably bland message of, I dunno, let’s go with inclusiveness and learning to be okay with being complicated and not always easily reduced to a single emoji.
Considering that Mike White of Enlightened, HBO’s short-lived, but deeply felt series about spiritual ennui in America, is among the credited screenwriters you want to give more weight to what the movie has to say, but you can’t help but feel like someone simply watched Inside Out while high and crapped out their best, half-remembered imitation. Thus, the story sets Gene on a madcap journey through a malfunctioning mind (er, I mean phone) where he encounters a forgotten imaginary friend (er, I mean emoji, specifically the James Corden-voiced high five emoji) and comes to better understand a female sidekick who used to be a princess (and suddenly we’re in Wreck-It Ralph territory). And then someone from corporate did the finger thing that means the money (and in this case lucrative sponsorship contracts) and forced them to work in plot detours into Candy Crush, Just Dance, Spotify and Dropbox.
All of that imitation and corporate chicanery would be forgivable if the movie had anything worthwhile or new to say, but it doesn’t. That’s not to say it won’t please its target audience of little kids; it just might lead to plenty of exchanges like the one I overheard last night:
Son: “What was your favorite part of the movie, dad?”
Father: “This part. Right now.”
Son: “What? The closing credits?”
Father: “Yeah, because that means the movie is finally over. Thank God.”
Son: [Sad Face Emoji]
THE BOTTOM LINE
Patrick Stewart and James Corden earn a couple of laughs as their respective emojis Poop and Hi-Five, and little kids will probably be suitably distracted. Adults watching Emoji Movie, however, will ironically find themselves instinctively reaching for their phones in search of a distraction from the mind-numbing inanity playing out on screen.