The Emoji Movie is a force of insidious evil, a film that feels as if it was dashed off by an uninspired advertising executive. The best commercials have a way of making you forget you’re being pitched at, but director Tony Leondis leaves all the notes received from his brand partners in full view. The core conceit apes Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, where a spirited misfit hops between self-contained worlds styled in a single recognisable way. Instead of holidays, however, our hero here jumps from app to app, and the ulterior motive of pumping up download numbers drains every last drop of joy from Leondis’s efforts to enchant.
The director wants us to think of Textopolis, the bustling city inside our smartphones, as a world of pure imagination. When a meh-face emoji named Gene (TJ Miller) is banished from his home for daring to express an emotion other than unimpressed nonchalance, Leondis takes his odyssey of self-discovery as an opportunity to imagine fantastical scenery. As a smiley-face emoji (Maya Rudolph) ruling Textopolis with a cheery iron fist tirelessly hunts him down, Gene gapes in awe at such marvels as a supercharged rollercoaster ride through raw data and a pixelated humpback whale that majestically glides over him. But because these glossy images are so nakedly in service of plugs for Dropbox and Spotify, it’s all but impossible to appreciate any incidental beauty they might possess.
The pervasive falseness extends to the film’s thematic underpinnings, which make a clumsy lunge at vague, be-yourself positivity. The paramount importance of being true to one’s own spirit is made literal in Gene’s silly quandary; he’s forced to hide who he is for the sake of compulsory homogeneity, and only through tapping into his full range of emotions can he achieve his potential. While Leondis, who is gay, has stated he intends this as an allegory for the tribulations faced by the non-heterosexual community, any social commentary is stymied by the execution. The film’s insistent feel-goodery and occasional nods to feminism (delivered by a spunky blue-haired hacker emoji, voiced by Anna Faris) ring false. Product-placement mashups Toy Story and The Lego Movie had the purity of playtime to seal in the sentimentality; somehow it’s not as endearing in a film built around the apps we use to kill time while sat on the toilet.
The ruthless mercenary details take the Emoji Movie beyond simply embarrassing and incompetent into something more manipulative and contemptible. One perplexing scene finds the emoji pals all doing a synchronised dance called “the emoji bop”. In a film so desperate to sell itself, this is clearly a craven bid to go viral, the cinematic equivalent of clickbait. The script practically begs for the approval of the tweens that elevated the lowly emoji to phenomenon status, but has only the slightest notion how they talk or act. Alex (Jake T Austin), the human in possession of the phone housing Gene and the rest of the cast, speaks like an dusty oldster. Alex’s awkward courtship of the cute girl in his class revolves around the deployment of emojis, but demonstrates no workable understanding of how the icons fit into adolescent life. Watching this fogeyish hero angle for edgy relevance is as uncomfortable as reading a fast-food chain’s Twitter account.
However, the most disturbing part of this toxic film is the way it infects audiences with its ugly cynicism. A viewer leaves The Emoji Movie a colder person, not only angry at the film for being unconscionably bad, but resentful of it for making them feel angry. A critic can accept the truth that art and commerce will spend eternity locked in opposition. Nevertheless it’s still startling to see art that cheers commerce on while being stamped in the face by its boots.