Review: The Emoji Movie is an emotionless, 90-minute big-screen tribute to online marketing

The plot is a fairly typical example of the likeable young outsider who has trouble fitting into the traditions of society

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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sony Pictures/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (8970078t)
Gene (T.J. Miller)
"The Emoji Movie" Film - 2017
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The Emoji Movie
Director: Tony Leondis
Starring: TJ Miller, James Corden, Patrick Stewart
Rating: One star

When I first heard talk of The Emoji Movie, my initial vision was of some groundbreaking underground filmmaker painstakingly piecing together a montage-style arthouse classic, addressing the existential pain and fears of modern life, while simultaneously embarking on a nuanced critique of the quintessential emptiness of communication in the age of social media.

I needn't have got excited. What Sony Animation has produced is a fairly typical example of the likeable young outsider who has trouble fitting into the traditions of his strictly prescribed native society and sets off on a traditional heroes journey to try and learn the secrets that will win him acceptance back home, in the same vein of Moana, Inside Out, or countless other animated kids films.

It is one of the most cynical examples of brand placement and marketing aimed at an impressionable young audience.

The story follows Gene (Miller), a young emoji. He lives in Textopolis, a digital city populated entirely by other emojis, which exist inside the text app of his user, Alex's, smartphone.

Emojis have just one role in life – to be scanned onto the screen of their user's smartphone when the appropriate emotion is required, and consequently they have just one emotion – a laughing emoji constantly laughs, we learn, even when it has just broken its arm, and a crying emoji always cries, even when it has just won the lottery.

Gene is a 'meh' emoticon, and his parents were successful 'meh' emoticons before him. But Gene has a malfunction – he is capable of expressing myriad emotions, and foolishly does so on his first day in the job when Alex calls on his services.


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Gene is swiftly removed from his post and earmarked for deletion, so he escapes from the text app into the wider smartphone in search of a hacker, Jailbait, who he hopes can restore his inherent 'meh'ness and win him his job back.

He's accompanied by his new emoji friend, 'Hi-5,' (Corden) who has his own reasons for seeking Jailbait's services having been supplanted in the louche VIP Lounge of the emojis’ 'Favourites' section by the more current 'Fistbump.'

Ultimately, the trio end up on a quest together to find the mystical 'cloud' where all their problems can be solved, though it is never entirely clear why a hacker is living inside the phone rather than manipulating it from outside as a user.

The premise actually seems to have potential. As the trio embark on their journey through the wider smart phone world, Leondis has the opportunity to paint a stunning digital world in which our heroes can grapple with their youthful identity issues. Tron this isn't, however.

What Leondis does instead is offer 90 minutes of free advertising to social media giants as our heroes set off on a journey through a brand-marketing strategist's wildest fantasy.

Facebook, Candy Crush, WeChat are all plastered blatantly before us in big-screen glory, as the three explore the phone's apps in search of salvation. And the best part? The audience is paying to be subjected to all this free advertising. Shouldn't that be the other way round?

Leondis has at least solved one problem of the digital age. Ordinarily, it’s impossible to even get tweenage kids off their smartphones for the length of a movie as it is, as any trip to the cinema will verify. His unique get-around simply involves amplifying the experience on a big screen and adding Dolby Surround sound.

The film isn't entirely without its positives – there are a couple of genuine laughs, such as Textopolis' elderly population being made up of wheelchair-bound, and now redundant, Emoticons (remember the old Nokia ‘:)’ gang?), and the underlying message of “be yourself whoever you are” is a good one.

Ultimately though, the film comes off as a cynical exercise in exploitation, but with a fundamental flaw in its corporate message: If Gene can replicate hundreds of emotions, he's surely not a malfunction, but the perfect Emoji? Think of the staffing costs the digital giants the movie deifies could make by using one multi-tasking Emoji rather than 1,000 inefficient smiling, crying or laughing ones.

The Emoji Movie is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, August 10.