The Emoji Movie squanders the talents of its capable voice cast on an animated film that is as cynical in its outlook as it was in its conception.
Gene (T.J. Miller) is a Meh Emoji who lives in Textopolis, a digital city that exists with the smartphone owned by an ordinary human teenager named Alex (Jake T. Austin). While Gene is excited about getting to finally work with the other emojis that populate Alex's phone, he has one big problem: for whatever reason, Gene is capable of expressing more emotions than the single one that he is meant to express. Despite their concerns, Gene's parents Mel (Steven Wright) and Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) do agree to allow their son to join the emoji workforce - only for disaster to strike on Gene's very first day, when he is selected by Alex and panics, messing up Alex's message to the girl that he has a crush on and wrecking the text center where the emojis operate, in the process.
Facing the threat of deletion by bots dispatched by Smiler (Maya Rudolph), a Smiley Emoji and the leader of the text center, Gene flees and ends up crossing paths with Hi-5 (James Corden), a Hand Emoji who has fallen out of popularity. Hi-5, in turn, agrees to take Gene to meet Jailbreak (Anna Faris), a "Hacker Emoji" who can reprogram Gene so that he only expresses the "Meh" emotion. Upon meeting with her, the pair strike a deal with Jailbreak: if Gene and Hi-5 help her to reach the Dropbox (so that she can leave Alex's phone forever), then Jailbreak will "fix" Gene for good. But can they do so before all three of them are sent to the Trash - permanently?
As developed by Sony Pictures Animation (the studio behind the Hotel Transylvania and Smurfs movie franchises), The Emoji Movie represents an attempt to take the most popular apps and emojis on your smartphone and create a Pixar-style "secret world", populated by most every non-trademarked IP emoji that has ever been created. Assisting Emoji Movie co-writer and director Tony Leondis (Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, Igor) in his efforts here is a voice cast composed of several noteworthy comedic actors and celebrities with proven comedy chops; Sir Patrick Stewart himself (lending his voice to the Poop Emoji here) among them. The Emoji Movie squanders the talents of its capable voice cast on an animated film that is as cynical in its outlook as it was in its conception.
While The Emoji Movie is quick to establish its primary setting of Textopolis as a bustling digital realm in the vein of the arcade from Disney Animation's Wreck-It Ralph, the movie fails to visualize the worlds that exist within your phone with any sort of real imagination or creativity. The animation here has a cheap look in general, relying upon flat colors and uninspired cartoony designs to envision what emojis and the apps that they exist within (and/or travel through) would look like, as objects in a three-dimensional space. Even The Emoji Movie's versions of popular apps such as Candy Crush and Just Dance, which feature simple yet bright and playful imagery in the real-world, offer little in the way of dazzling or memorable visuals. Save for the rare exception (see how the movie portrays music and sound effects in Spotify), The Emoji Movie offers little in the way of eye candy that is more interesting to look at than, well, your actual phone.
Similar to how The Emoji Movie mimics Inside Out's approach to world-building (only in a cheaper fashion), the film weaves together the story thread about Gene's journey within his phone-world with a plot-line about the phone's owner in the real-world, also like what that hit Pixar film did. Unfortunately, the approach backfires here and results in an undercooked hero's journey for Gene and his friends; in the process, painting the phone's young user Alex and his peers at school as emotionally-impaired and incapable of communicating their feelings in any meaningful way without their emojis. Whereas the best Disney and/or Pixar-animated movies bring as much depth to human characters as they do inanimate objects, The Emoji Movie comes off as backwards and shallow in its examination of how people (whatever their age) socialize with one another and express their individuality, in the digital age. For a movie that is all about expressing yourself (a movie that was even originally titled Emoji Movie: Express Yourself), the film can't even handle that simple, kid-friendly message.
The Emoji Movie, which Leondis co-wrote with Eric Siegel (Men at Work) and Mike White (School of Rock), also explores the idea of not accepting the role that society has deemed appropriate for you, bringing to mind The LEGO Movie's take on a similar concept. However, because the various emoji characters in The Emoji Movie don't actually evolve beyond either flat archetypes or glorified walking puns over the film's (short) runtime, that larger theme is never fully-developed either. Likewise, whereas The LEGO Movie finds a way to add layers of complexity to its own antagonist who is obsessed with social order and everyone being in their place, The Emoji Movie's similar villain - the relentlessly "cheery" Smiler - isn't afforded any real depth either, nor even an entertaining personality. Despite Maya Rudolph's best efforts to infuse Smiler with some enjoyably manic energy through her vocal delivery of her lines, the character is a one-joke baddie who even most youngsters probably won't find that funny.
T.J. Miller, Anna Faris and James Corden voice, respectively, The Emoji Movie's protagonist Gene, female lead Jailbreak and comic relief Hi-5, but the actual characters are so cookie-cutter in their design (Gene is the outsider who just wants to fit in, Jailbreak is the "cool girl" who doesn't like to be feminine, and so forth) that having actors with a proven talent for voice acting and broad comedy doesn't make any real difference, when it comes to their quality. Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge as Gene's parents Mel and Mary get a subplot of their own here, but the running joke involving the characters only ever speaking in an unemotional "meh" fashion, as you might imagine, runs out of gas pretty quickly. That said, there is fun to be had in Patrick Stewart delivering (what else?) poop-related puns as the Poop Emoji in a regal and formal manner, but he's in far too little of the film to leave a lasting impression.
As should be clear now, The Emoji Movie is highly derivative of previous animated movies that anthropomorphized inanimate toys, digital objects and even emotions, but lacks the heart, wit and sense of craftsmanship that made those films successful. It may not arrive as shocking news, but The Emoji Movie ultimately comes across as little more than the crass attempt to cash-in on the popularity of smartphone technology that many thought it would be, when it was first announced. The juicebox crowd is no doubt the demographic most likely to get some joy out of the film's many emoji-related puns and gags, but The Emoji Movie lacks crossover appeal otherwise. Here's to hoping the inevitable (?) Play-Doh Movie turns out better.