If you’re like me, you may have seen billboards for The Emoji Movie and wondered, “Gee, how’d they make a movie about emojis?” If you think your curiosity may lure you to the theater, allow me to get ahead of it.
The Emoji Movie is predicated on the following “mind-blowing” question: What if all of the emojis we send to each other are actually sentient beings with lives as rich and complex as our own? With plenty of cleverness and traces of a heartbeat, The Emoji Movie seems, at times, to aspire to be Toy Story for the next generation. Sadly, it falls well short of this and winds up being, if anything, an accidental cautionary tale of a dystopian A.I. future.
Enter the ultra-contained-but-infinite world of a cell phone — specifically, the texting app, otherwise known as “Textopolis.” Here we meet the presumably lovable packet of sentient code named Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller). Gene’s dream is to be a successful working “meh” emoji 😒, just like his parents — a job that consists of heading to the corporate headquarters, standing in a cube at the ready and making a 😒 face for a scanner whenever the phone’s human user, Alex, opens the emoji keyboard and picks it.
There’s just one problem: Gene doesn’t feel “meh.” He’s brimming with zeal for life.
Gene is presented with his first big break when the human, Alex, wants to play it cool with the girl he likes (Addie), and tries to send the “meh” emoji, I guess because it’s attractive to be disinterested. But Gene freaks out and blows it. The scanner sends the wrong expression to Addie’s phone, and the moment is ruined for Alex. Worse, he’s so frustrated by his malfunctioning phone that he sets up an appointment to have it serviced.
The Doomsday Clock ticks for Textopolis.
Gene is soon chased by Anti-Virus Deleter Bots that look like The Jetsons’ robo-maid’s darkest sexual fantasies. He runs around with the disgraced high-five emoji✋(who’s been replaced by the fist bump emoji 👊), fleeing from app to app in search of a mysterious hacker named Jailbreak, who can reprogram him to be a proper “meh.” Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Randall wants the lobotomy.
The award for most milked joke goes to Gene’s “meh” parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge), who, in the midst of the most stressful scenario known to all life forms — not knowing if their offspring will survive — are only capable of communicating in a droll monotone. And over and over again, it is precisely as funny as I have just described it.
The whole thing is supremely convoluted, but we are all fluent enough in phone usage to follow along. The characters and settings are clever in a “ha” way. The most condemning observation I made was that, in a theater with a near 50/50 split of children and adults, there were virtually no LOLs.
The human framing of the story — boy wants to ask girl to dance — is hokey at best, regressive at worst, as is the groan-inducing payoff at the end (DM me for spoilers). The social commentary is lazy and toothless: We use our phones a lot and emojis are like hieroglyphs? Please. When the humans appeared in Wall-E, I had a full-blown panic attack.
After I saw Toy Story for the first time (age 8), I made a solemn vow that I would be a benevolent, equal-opportunity toy player. I swore to my stuffed animals and toy cars that none would feel neglected, that all would have a happy, fruitful life in my kingdom. While I can’t turn back the hands of time and watch this emoji charade as a young boy, I can’t imagine I’d feel the same sense of duty to the apps in my ill-deserved iPhone.
I shudder at the thought of a future where our ability to procure a mate and propagate the species is dependent on the emoji keyboard’s ability to observe our behavior and make those leaps for us. What’s the message here? Anti-virus software is evil? What wool are these filmmakers trying to pull over our eyes and stuff in our ears? And the eggplant emoji 🍆 is somehow in the “Losers Lounge” reserved for never-used emojis? I’m happy to suspend disbelief, but some things just don’t compute.