Los Angeles (AP) – There are five stages of grief in preparing to watch “The Emoji Movie.” The first is denial that this actually exists. The second is anger that now even storytelling has been reduced to those reductive blobs. The third is bargaining that, hey, they made “The Lego Movie” work against all odds so maybe some smart folks actually pulled this off. The fourth is depression that all movie ideas are just doomed to confuse “brands” for “ideas.” And the fifth is acceptance that, yes, of course that’s where we’re headed so let’s pull up a seat and make the most of it.
The good news is “The Emoji Movie,” co-written and directed by Tony Leondis, is not evil. The bad news is it’s just mediocre, or in emoji parlance, simply “meh.”
It does not come close to achieving the joy and wonder of, say, “Toy Story,” 3Inside Out” or “The Lego Movie” although it appears to borrow heavily from all in its central conceit that anthropomorphized emojis have families and ambitions but also exist solely to serve a particular smart phone owner. “The Emoji Movie” takes us into the world of Alex’s phone — he’s an awkward high school freshman who is stressed out about what to text the girl he has a crush on. His friend advises him that “words are stupid” so he goes for a good old emoji.
Little does he know in the emoji app it’s Gene’s first day of work. Gene (T.J. Miller) is supposed to be the “meh” symbol, but the excitable yellow blob alternates between all emotions and can’t stick to the one he’s supposed to have, like his parents Mary Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) and Mel Meh (Steven Wright), who deadpan lines like “I’m so mad at you right now.” Also, should we be thinking about the implications of aging and procreating emojis? Probably not, but it’s still a particularly weird and uncomfortable idea.
Anyway, Gene is basically the “Divergent” emoji, but there’s no choosing in this town and when he screws up his first time at bat, the sinister Smiler (Maya Rudolph) decides he’s a malfunction and must be deleted. Suddenly Gene is on the run, and hooks up with the past his prime Hi-5 (James Corden) and a hacker emoji Jailbreak (Anna Faris) to try to get into the cloud where they might fix him.
If you’re worried about whether or not this is some big smartphone advertisement, it only kind of is. There’s a whole journey through the Spotify app, and they have to get through a dance competition in the Just Dance app to get where they’re going, and there is a line that seems to have been written by marketing folks about how illegal malware can’t get into the protected DropBox app. Oh and while it’s not mentioned, the Sony-owned Crackle app is always on Alex’s home screen.
Gene might not be much, but Jailbreak is actually a decently conceived character — perhaps because she’s not constrained to being an emoji. It’s actually kind of a metaphor for the movie which shines when it just runs with an idea and not brand-service.
Parents might not learn anything about their kids’ habits on smartphones, and kids won’t get a better understanding of how their smartphone works. But it’s pretty inoffensive on the whole. It doesn’t dare go to the depths that a Pixar rendering might, or lean very far into meta-cleverness. Instead it stays surface level and in that way feels very, very young. It’s about being yourself and the importance of friends and, heck, it’s only 86 minutes long.
Also, the poop jokes are minimal.
“The Emoji Movie,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “rude humor.” Running time: 86 minutes. Two mehs out of four.