Cinematic Releases: The Emoji Movie (2017) - Reviewed

To date there have been no truly successful video game adaptations. There are arguments to be made for a few of them; films like Tomb Raider and even Doom have their defenders. But for the most part video game movies have been critical and commercial failures. Perhaps the problem was figuring out just how beholden to the original game's plot they had to be. Maybe Sony Pictures Animation had the right idea with 2016's The Angry Birds Movie: you can't be slavishly devoted to a plot if your game never had one in the first place. The resulting film was modestly successful and certainly more clever and cute than it had any right to be. This summer Sony will attempt to make lightning strike twice by adapting not even a game, but a pictorial keyboard language, and unleashing The Emoji Movie upon the world.

Rising star T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley, Deadpool) headlines The Emoji Movie as Gene, a "meh" emoji who discovers that he is more than just "meh". Since an emoji is only ever supposed to be one thing, this causes some problems with the top emoji brass, forcing Gene to find a way to get his "meh" back or face possible deletion. He is joined on his adventure by bandaged hand Hi-5 (James Corden) and a mysterious hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) who just might know how to save him.

Naturally, the "plot", such is it is, is mainly there to be in service to the egregious product placement and terrible, terrible puns that truly hold the film together. Characters voyaging through Spotify and YouTube on their way to Dropbox sounds more like a Silicon Valley-set Lord of the Rings than a kids' movie. And speaking of kids' movies, The Emoji Movie borrows from some of the best—notably, The Lego Movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Wreck-it Ralph—swiping a story element here and an emotional beat there but none of the cleverness that made those movies great. When stunt-casting Sir Patrick Stewart as the infamous poop emoji is your master stroke of cleverness, you've got some problems.

This is where The Emoji Movie truly takes a turn for the disappointing. This film is a total vacuum of self-awareness. The examples above, particularly Lego and Meatballs, not to mention the wildly underrated Josie and the Pussycats, overcame their questionable premises by embracing the ridiculousness of it all and then using it to their advantage. They weaponized their self-awareness and came out as smart, on-point comedies with wide appeal. It's not that being a "kids' movie" is necessarily a bad thing. It just would have been nice to see The Emoji Movie address its stigmas and truly try to be something more.

It's hard to necessarily call The Emoji Movie "bad" when there are truly far worse animated films out there. Even still, the characters are flat and formulaic, any attempt at actual emotion rings a bit hollow, and the shameless product placement foregoes any shot at self-awareness and just turns the whole thing into a limp commercial. What it all comes down to is, the best word to describe The Emoji Movie is... meh.

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-Mike Stec