The Emoji Movie (2017)
Director: Tony Leondis
Screenwriters: Tony Leondis, Eric Siegel, Mike White
Starring: Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, T.J. Miller, James Corden, Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara
The Emoji Movie is a legendarily bad film. The Sony Pictures Animation animated feature explores the world of emojis, the yellow smiley faces we all feel compelled to send one another (I wonder if we’ll ever get The Reaction Gif Movie or The Meme Movie). The protagonist is Gene, a “meh” emoji who finds himself unable to fit into the box his world expects him to stay in and thus goes on a journey with the mysterious hacker Jailbreak and a “Hi-5” emoji to find his place in the world or… whatever his goal is. There’s also a human named Alex who owns the phone the emojis live in.
Critics and audiences alike hated the film, with reviews being a weird mix of vitriol, indifference and pity:
“Now comes ‘The Emoji Movie,’ a film that dares to ask ‘What goes on in the magical worlds contained within our cell phones?,’ a notion that I do not think that anyone has ever pondered for any amount of time outside of those stuck in a focus group at Sony Animation.” – Peter Sobczynski, rogerebert.com
“If I was God, and I heard this product was not only being made, not only being promoted, but actually released, then I would invite Satan over to manage the heavens so I could personally eradicate my failure below.” –IMDb user review
“The Emoji Movie is not just a critical flop, but also a metaphor for a Hollywood that is struggling to find the line between branding that audiences love and branding that audiences resent.” – Megan Garber, The Atlantic
“When it was first announced, I thought that the emoji movie was just some elaborate April fools prank. Clearly, I was wrong. This film was a steaming pile of human waste. It was a pandering, cliché mess of a movie that makes ‘The Room’ look like a masterpiece.” – IMDb user review
“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.” – Charles Bramesco, Guardian
“It’s like a 14 year old wanted to put their own spin on Inside Out” – Reddit user
“As far as expanding on smartphone-related IP, this is an even weaker starting point than Sony Animation’s recent The Angry Birds Movie.” – Vadim Rizov, AV Club
“This movie is the perfect example of ‘bad concept, bad execution’.” – Reddit user
After hearing of comments just like these, I was biased going into the film. The Emoji Movie has been so popular to hate, and thus seemed an easy target to become the centre of my “this is why I hate movies these days” attitude (which only sometimes rears its head… promise). Those damned out-of-touch Sony executives trying to capitalize on what’s hip by creating films based upon random IP with supposed mass appeal, without much thought or care, are the bane of the cinephile’s existence. How did such a travesty occur? Which mindless suit came up with this brilliant (insert eye roll emoji here) idea?
“Well, for me growing up a gay kid, I always felt kind of other than everyone else and excluded in a way. So the idea of being different in a world that expects you to be one thing. And I realized soon after that, everyone feels different, everyone feels other. We all feel like there’s maybe something wrong with us or we’re different,” director Tony Leondis told ScreenRant in 2017. “That’s what we try to find in animated movies, those concepts that everyone can connect to. So for me it was very personal and very broad at the same time, very universal – personal and universal.”
It’s hard to see a film be so heavily lambasted when the director has a such a personal take on the content. Of course this is PR, and a filmmaker is going to do their best to sell their film, but I saw positive threads woven into the fabric of The Emoji Movie. This isn’t entirely the corporate slop most reviews portray it as, and it’s far from the worst thing I’ve ever seen.
That being said, it is not a good movie.
The primary issue with The Emoji Movie is that there’s nothing enjoyable about it. We follow Gene, Alex and Gene’s parents in three equally shallow plots. In fact, Alex and the parents barely have a plot at all. I really don’t understand why Alex is even in the film – it’s like exploring the world outside of Whoville, and I frankly don’t care. Alex is always in a class where the teacher has hieroglyphics drawn on the blackboard. What class is it? History? Egyptology? Is it a Middle Egyptian language course? Why is it on the blackboard multiple days in a row? Extradiegetically, it’s there for the teacher to draw a parallel to emojis, but Alex never realizes. It doesn’t serve to show any of his qualities, except that he’s on his phone instead of listening in class (but we already knew that because he’s a teenager… or so these out of touch executives should have thought at least). Alex has a crush on a girl and is too scared to ask her to the Fall Dance, and that’s about all you need to know about Alex. The scenes of him having a phone issue or not asking out the girl are monotonous. Cut him out of the movie and there’s literally no change in the emotional impact, and you would only need to change one part of the not-so-dramatic third act.
As for Gene, the main protagonist emoji we follow inside of Alex’s phone, he travels through the smartphone ‘universe’ but nothing excites or even strikes a chord (well, apart from James Corden’s Hi-5 being deleted from history by an evil bot army).
What kept me going was questioning the film. For example, Gene’s parents threw me for a loop. Do emojis have sex? Or do the offspring poof into existence? Is it a conscious decision by the parents? Do you even need two emojis to create an emoji? Can you have a “meh”-poop hybrid? Do the food emojis get eaten by the other emojis, since that’s their “role” in life? Are the traffic lights in this world the traffic light emojis, meaning they can’t participate and are inherently forced into a life of slavery to the free emojis? If they can leave apps, what’s to stop all the oppressed traffic lights from leaving Textopolis to go to Dropbox? Then you don’t have traffic lights, and the car emojis might rise up against their face overlords because they cannot safely serve their function in society. By the time that train of thought has ended, I’m hearing Gene say for the millionth time that he just doesn’t feel “meh” and Hi-5 is making me want to Ctrl+Delete my decision to watch the entire film.
Through all the mess I don’t like, I see positives within the ideas behind the movie – I don’t think Tony Leondis is a corporate shill trying to make crap for kiddos, I think he might just be a “meh” filmmaker. It seems like he got the job because of his experience with animation, but the animation feels secondary to writing when the script isn’t good. His other films, Igor and Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, were poorly received by critics too, the only difference between their responses and the response to The Emoji Movie being the passionate hatred stemming from the concept. I view this film with a distant indifference that keeps me from being able to truly eviscerate it like others, and I mostly feel bad for the filmmakers that did put effort into it because it’s not worth the effort they gave. I also think getting a more successful (but lesser known) comedic mind like Scot Armstrong (a regular Todd Phillips collaborator), Sean Anders (We’re the Millers) or Wernick/Reese (Deadpool) could have improved this movie by making it passably funny.
Bearing that in mind… don’t listen to the majority of opinions that cast it as “one of the worst films of all time”.
The worst thing about The Emoji Movie is that it’s terribly boring compared to terrible masterpieces like The Room or The Trump Prophecy. Sure, the plot is derivative and trite, but the boredom is ultimately the result of my expectations for a terrible movie. I sat there waiting for it to get really bad… and it never did. It’s an uninteresting version of Wreck It Ralph or Frozen; it moves fairly quickly among different locations to keep a young child’s attention span, and it’s peppered with quips from the comic relief characters that aren’t that funny to an adult but might make a young child laugh. There’s nothing egregious about the filmmaking, the writing or the actions being taken. It’s bland, plain and simple. Don’t bother watching it because you’ll just end up regretting the time you spent.