The summer of 2017 has not been what I would call a good time for movies. Even critical darlings like Edgar Wright’s stylish action musical Baby Driver and Mat Reeves’ Apocalypse Now-obsessed film War for the Planet of the Apes were very underwhelming to me. I began to formulate a hypothesis that the rest of the summer moviegoing fare (such as the genuinely terrible King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the latest Transformers travesty, and the mind-numbing Mummy reboot) had been so depressingly awful, that these other films seemed dramatically better in comparison. The weak characters in Baby Driver were masterpieces of craft compared to literally anything in The Mummy. However, as a film lover, I dutifully held my head high and walked into the theater week after week, desperately hoping for a surprise. Eventually I found it. It was Dunkirk. Not The Emoji Movie. The Emoji Movie is terrible. Which was a surprise to nobody.
The story of The Emoji Movie follows a young “Meh” emoji in a city that is cleverly (read sarcastically) named Textopolis. In this beautiful utopia, each emoji only has one face and one emotion. The meh’s are always meh. The crying guys are always crying. The winking fellow always has something to wink about. I could continue but I think you get the picture. However, Gene is different! He can express himself with a number of faces, and seems to just want to enjoy life. At this point, if you have ever seen any movie ever, you have a pretty solid chance of guessing exactly where this is going. When the boy whose phone all of this exists in selects Gene as a response to the girl who just texted him (it is important to point out that he selects an emoji due to the prompting of his friend, who so eloquently delivers the sage advice “words aren’t cool”) his face appears distorted and confused. Why that’s not a meh emoji!!! There must be something wrong with this dumb phone! Welp, better take it to the phone store to have them DELETE THE PHONE. That is the actual phrase the film uses: delete the phone. Whilst this is going on, gene sets off on a quest to be reprogrammed so that he can become a normal meh emoji and fit in with the help of the high five emoji and a hacker girl named Jailbreak. At the same time, they are being hunted by the leader of the Emoji’s, the smile emoji, who wants to delete Gene because he is a malfunction and apparently deleting him will stop the owner of the phone from “deleting the phone.” What follows is often nonsensical, and frequently embarrassing.
Among the film’s biggest problems is the fact that it has absolutely no idea who its audience is. It would seem that the film is targeted at millennials, but it also spends a great deal of time relentlessly beating down millennials using such original ideas as “Facebook friends aren’t real friends,” and internet trolls, and the fact that kids spend too much time on their phones. I suppose it might be worth a chuckle to the poor downtrodden parent who had to sit through The Emoji Movie, but it’s all executed with so little craft or finesse that they are more likely to roll their eyes than anything. Furthermore, the film seems to care very little for any form of accuracy regarding technology. This, despite the fact that the film is supposedly marketed towards tech-savvy pre-teens and children who grew up with tablets. This manifests itself in a number of ways. To begin with we have brilliant phrases such as “Delete the Phone,” which is something a grandmother would say to her grandson when asking them for help with that darn telephone thing. Also, there is an app that is simplistically called the “Piracy app,” because that’s definitely how apps are named. Perhaps worst of all, the “climactic” ending of the film takes place as the phone is being deleted, to use the (in)correct vernacular. As everything crumbles around Gene and company, the boy sends the girl of his dreams the Gene emoji again, and discovers that she likes it. So, as his phone’s entire operating system is 99.99% erased, he yanks the chord out of it. This, of course, returns everything in his phone back to normal because that’s totally how computers work. I don’t think I really need to explain why this is idiotic. The things deleted from his phone would still be deleted, that’s what deleted means. His phone would be a Sony branded paperweight. I understand that it’s a kid’s movie and that I should allow for some suspension of disbelief, but seriously. Kids are not this dumb. Nobody is. Well apparently somebody is.
If the high-profile voice cast had given you any hope that the material would be of a caliber suited to the talent, abandon hope all ye who enter here. Patrick Stewart is mildly amusing as the poop emoji, but despite how shamelessly the marketing team displayed him in every single piece of publicity he is on screen for maybe ten minutes of the entire runtime. TJ Miller, who plays Gene, seems rather out of place. Miller is a talented comedic actor, and has had a string of solid roles recently. This is why it was so baffling to hear him reading lines as if he were seeing the script (which I can only assume was written in crayon considering its remarkable quality) for the first time. I am not particularly familiar with Miller’s voice, but his performance was so stiff and lifeless that all I could imagine every time he spoke was a man in a recording booth, not a plucky and lovable character on a (boring and predictable) journey of self-discovery. The rest of the cast pulls their weight, delivering groan-worthy line after groan-worthy line with as much pep as they can muster. The only positive thing I can say about the casting, and the film at large, is that casting Stephen Wright as a meh emoji was a stroke of genius. Kudos to the person who had that idea, it may be the only good idea in the film.
And now we arrive at the reason this film was ever made: product placement. There is a way to use product placement well in a film. It can be used discreetly, or to make the world seem more genuine. James Bond has to drive a car, why not make it an Aston Martin. People have cell phones, why not make them iPhones. Furthermore, at times a lack of product placement can make the film world feel dramatically less immersive. There was a scene in the recent Japanese film Shin Godzilla, where a man is drinking a bottle of water that has no label at all. Unless it’s a thing in Japan to only drink totally unbranded water, I’m thinking someone removed that label. In essence, product placement, when implemented carefully and with an eye to enhancing the world of your film, can be beneficial to all involved parties. However, this is not the way product placement is used in a great majority of films, especially summer blockbusters. Instead we get whole shots devoted to logos in Transformers movies, four Coke cups perfectly facing the camera in Adam Sandler movies, and the entirety of The Emoji Movie. Sony as a company has a particularly egregious track record of whoring out their brands in movies they produce. Apparently, every Sony film takes place in an alternate dimension where every person on the planet uses Sony Vaio’s™ and Sony Xperia™ cell phones and Sony cameras and the only video game console that ever existed was the Sony PlayStation™ by Sony. Have I said Sony enough yet? Maybe I’ll take a break from writing this review to play some Sony first-party fames on my Sony PlayStation™ on my Sony Bravia™ TV. It all so affordable and convenient!
All joking aside, when watching a Sony movie, this is kind of just par for the course. However, what is not par for the course is pinning almost all of the plot and set pieces in your film entirely on product placement. Gene’s ultimate goal is to get to Dropbox™, so that the hacker girl can upload his source code and reprogram him. If you’re wondering why on earth you’d need to get to Dropbox™ to access he source code of an emoji, you can stop now. The movie doesn’t care. On the way, they pass through Candy Crush™. The gang must play a game of Candy Crush™ in order to free Gene from the place where the candy is suspended. He is there for no reason other than that this is a movie, and things need to happen. The same can be said for the cruelly long sequence set inside of the Just Dance™ app. Our lovable heroes must dance their way across a chasm between them and their goal. Why? So Sony could make more money. Gene and hacker girl surf to salvation on waveforms inside of the Spotify™ app. This also affords the film an opportunity to shoehorn in some catchy pop music because kids like that, right? There are also sequences that manage to incorporate Instagram™, YouTube™, and Twitter™. The most shameless example is a chat app called WeChat. I had no idea what this was until I looked it up, but after some research I learned that WeChat is a massively popular app in china, but it is basically unknown in the United States. This is obviously an attempt to appeal to foreign audiences in a desperate scramble to open as many revenue streams as humanly possible. The worst part is that most of these sequences do nothing to further the plot. They are just in the film to artificially pad the runtime, make it seem like something is actually happening, and to line the pockets of Sony executives. It is very possible to have a brand-related film that is still an effective film, and not an embarrassing commercial for as many apps as possible. A perfect example of this would be The Lego Movie, with which The Emoji Movie also shares a naming structure. The Lego Movie is a charming, intelligent film, executed in such a way that it actually feels like a movie, and a very good one at that. There are likable characters, there is a self-aware sense of humor that permeates everything, and a solid message for the kids. Also, it probably helped sell an incomprehensible number of overpriced Lego sets. The point is, at no point during that film did it ever feel as if it’s purpose was to sell those sets. The same cannot be said for The Emoji Movie.
When I walked up to the desk at the theater to get my ticket, I said “I would like one ticket to the most embarrassing movie playing today,” word for word. Without hesitation, the gentleman behind the desk printed me a ticket for The Emoji Movie while his coworker silently shook her head in disapproval. I like to think she was trying to warn me silently, to save me this pain. After sitting through an hour and a half of The Emoji Movie, I was actually angry. At the best I was hoping for a “so bad its good” situation (which was my response to another film this summer, Alien Covenant, which was the best comedy I’ve seen in years). However, even that modest hope was dashed to pieces by The Emoji Movie’s cruel incompetence. Everything about this movie makes me cynical and upset. The marketing, the shameful product placement, the subpar voice acting, the contrived plot, the weak/borderline nonexistent characters, and the saccharine, undeserved emotion all combine to create what might be the worst movie I have ever seen in a theater. The best that can be said about The Emoji Movie is that it is only ninety minutes long. Of course it feels like five hours, but in a world where The Emoji Movie exists, we must count our blessings.