Last week I reviewed "Dunkirk" and I talked about how early reviews had set the bar impossibly high, which prevented me from appreciating the film more. This week brings us "The Emoji Movie," and the scales are shifted the other way. This film has been a critical whipping boy since the day it was announced due to the faddish nature of its subject matter. And that prejudice seemed to be justified, with the film scoring a 0% on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes when I saw it Friday afternoon (that number has since beefed up to an 8%). A sort of contest emerged over who could trash the film the hardest, with many reviewers saying something to the effect of "This film is the end of civilization." It's a bad film, all right, but I can't help but feel like maybe it doesn't deserve to get flayed that badly.
The film features a cast of characters defined by a single trait or emotion. Gene (T.J. Miller) is supposed to be an apathetic "Meh" emoji, but he feels a variety of emotions, usually exuberant, so he doesn't fit in. His parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Steven Wright) let him go to work as a Meh on the phone of a teenage boy, but when it comes time for him to make the appropriate face, he screws up because he's so confused about his identity. This puts all the emojis at risk, because the owner is now considering erasing the whole phone.
Head emoji Smiler (Maya Rudolph) wants to have Gene deleted in the name of removing malfunctions, so he has to go on adventure throughout the phone to reach The Cloud, where he can be reprogrammed to conform to his role. Probably the biggest specific problem I have with the film is that it forgot to make Smiler actually evil. She has evil mannerisms, with her permanent smile becoming increasingly creepy as her fury heightens. But that's not the same as evil motivation, which she lacks. She's completely justified in thinking that Gene is a danger to the emojis' whole world. In fact, Gene gets a number of characters deleted by the owner as a result of his journey of self-improvement; quite inconsiderate come to think of it.
Gene is joined by a fledgling High Five emoji (James Corden) and a tough-cookie hacker (Anna Faris). Together they visit popular apps like "Candy Crush" and "Just Dance," where we get plenty of candy and dancing jokes that are par for the course for low-aiming kids' movies these days. That's what this movie is, completely typical. Everything about it is ripped off from other, better movies. A digital world, a candy world, and a main character uncomfortable with his label? That's "Wreck-it Ralph." Characters representing a single emotion learning it's healthy to have multiple emotions, to the benefit of a teenager? "Inside Out." Blatant product placement and the film being defined by a pop culture entity that sounds like a really bad idea for a movie? "The LEGO Movie" pulled it off, but this one doesn't.
But it's that typicality that somewhat saves "The Emoji Movie." It doesn't have many ideas of its own, so it doesn't have many bad ones. This isn't a movie where I'm screaming out "What were they thinking?" It was clearly overseen by people who watched every scene and said, "That will play well, I guess." It's a useless junk food movie, not a sign of the apocalypse. Out of every ten gags, maybe one is worth a chuckle, four are painful, and five sail away with no effect whatsoever. I found this movie to be pretty Meh, which is about the highest praise it's going to get.
One and a Half Stars out of Five.
"The Emoji Movie" is rated PG for rude humor. Its running time is 86 minutes.
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