“Meh” is a blight on the human condition. The promotion of indifference and apathy above all other emotions has become a way of life for members of society to whom feeling anything is a sign of weakness. The Emoji Movie is about the literal embodiment of “meh”: the lead character is Gene Meh. It purports to be entertaining, but it lives in that dangerous zone of being a movie incapable of provoking strong emotions one way or another.
Gene (TJ Miller, TV’s Silicon Valley) is a meh emoji desperate to begin work in Textopolis, but he’s incapable of sticking to a single emotion. After accidentally sending a nonsense emoji from his owner Alex’s (Jake T. Austin, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract) phone, Gene goes on the run from super popular emoji Smiler (Maya Rudolph, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) with high-five emoji Hi-5 (James Corden, Trolls). They team up with hacker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris, Mom) to reach Dropbox and upload themselves to the cloud before they get deleted.
Director Tony Leondis (Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters), working from a script he cowrote with Eric Siegel (Men at Work) and punched up to no effect by Mike White (Beatriz at Dinner), has lazily slapped together a pastiche of thousands of other children’s films without any of the warmth or humour. If you’ve seen a movie about a square peg in a world of round holes, who wants to be liked and accepted and not murdered — because this is not a movie that’s very subtle with its metaphor, death is the actual consequence — you’ve seen The Emoji Movie. 86 minutes can be very long when they’ve got no content to them, and when you can only afford something like three licensed titles. Candy Crush is already creatively bankrupt enough for a world-conquering juggernaut, and dropping an emoji into it does not help. If Just Dance were as dull as it appears on screen (presented by Christina Aguilera, no less), then no one would ever play it — but of course there’s probably some deeper meaning to presenting a finger version of a game that was designed to be played with the entire body.
Apart from its obvious narrative defects, The Emoji Movie doesn’t have any of the visual flair that can lift an animated film to a higher level. The emojis are monstrosities, and inconsistent ones: Gene, his parents, and the rest of the face style emojis have arms and legs but no bodies, but Jailbreak has arms, legs and a dress, because she’s a girl. She has to be coded that way, so to speak, so that she can be a love interest — despite her occasional toothless speeches about defying genre roles ripped from The LEGO Movie without the accuracy or context. On the whole, the emoji exist in that uncanny valley where they look somewhat like their Unicode precedents but don’t accurately resemble any phone’s specific character set. The human characters, who are very minor characters indeed, tread a very fine line between generic and inhuman. Like everything else in the movie, they lack imagination. With only a single scene showing any creativity at all — a visit to Paris via Instagram — there’s nothing to remember here.
The Emoji Movie is an object lesson in cashing in on a market that had lain untapped for a reason. Sad to look at and joyless to watch, there’s nothing on offer here for anyone but the least-demanding child. Gene may learn that the best me he can be is himself, but by the end the audience has been uploaded to the cloud and reprogrammed: they have become meh, destroyer of phones.
The Emoji Movie opened in Australian cinemas on September 14, 2017.
Directed by: Tony Leondis.
Starring: T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara, Sean Hayes and Patrick Stewart.