After my five year old daughter insisted on seeing “The Emoji Movie” and I thus resigned myself to having to watch it, I went through a phase right before viewing in which I was perversely looking forward to it. Reading the reviews, it seemed like the film was one of the worst ever made in the history of the medium – as an admirer of bad movies, I thought here was one I had to see for myself.
Having now watched it, I can say “The Emoji Movie” is not the worst film of all time. Hell, it’s not even the worst film of the summer (“Despicable Me 3” is worse). But it is very, very bad, and in a way that is like nothing I think I’ve ever seen before. It is less a film than a shiny object – while it’s in front of you, one is perfectly happy to gaze at it, but with no involvement on any level regarding any of the characters, and you’d be happy for it to be shut off and never be put on again at any moment. Key to understanding the film as a phenomenon is that it is weirdly (for a bad film, I mean) tightly plotted. There isn’t a single wasted scene in it, for instance. That never happens by accident, as any veteran of bad films would be able to tell you. It is as if the film was made by a professionally competent team of filmmakers on instruction to make it about Emojis from a despot who had kidnapped them and told them he woukd kill them all if he didn’t like the finished product. So it is ends up ticking every box of what a film should be, while being devoid of anything and everything that makes films actually enjoyable.
The plot concerns Gene, an Emoji who is meant to pull a “meh” face for the rest of time, but can’t do it as he’s too dynamic a little chap to be just a one face pony. He’s due for termination, but through the help of two other Emojis, he finds the value of himself and saves the day.
Many critics have complained that it is like one big advert for applications, but I didn’t find it so. For a start, it doesn’t exactly show YouTube – which is depicted as a mindless place where East Asians in silly outfits preen narcissistically and kitten related videos play on an endless, torturous loop – or Facebook – which is shown as an annoying echo chamber, people just speaking to themselves – in a very positive light. It’s much more like a film written and put together by a very well designed computer program: it does everything that a film plot needs to do, but with no feeling at all, so that you never at any time feel even remotely involved with any of the characters. In fact, I can’t think of any film – and I mean here any film, including the works of Coleman Francis, say – in which I was this uninvolved with the characters. It wasn’t boring so much as completely empty on any level other than a sort of visual junk food type of a way. A bit like watching a mate playing a video game.
Others have complained about the morals the film invokes, but they aren’t foul so much as just errant. The whole thing is based around not being selfish, yet the film constantly seemingly intentionally makes us care very little about secondary characters, even when their fate is death; as if these characters are beneath basic human dignity. When High Five is rescued from the Trash Bin, several other programs try and hang onto him in order to be saved as well, and he just kicks them off and they are left to die in this technological death camp. Then he lets down the rope he used to escape but kicks the thing back into the trash bin, thus doubly condemning everyone inside to die. And the film tries to play this all for laughs. Earlier on, High Five and Gene make their plans to escape the text app from the confines of the Loser Lounge, a refuge for discarded Emojis, and a red wagon Emoji overhears and begs to be allowed to come along. High Five kicks her aside (both literally and heartlessly) and the two main characters leave. Are we not meant to not only see the Emojis as being human-like but to be cheering for the underdog here as well? Why then does the poor, innocent anthropomorphised wagon deserve to be kicked in the face?
The jokes are remarkably unfunny, again, like something devised by a computer. Early on in the film, several letters are standing around the pavement as well as some punctuation. One of the letters points to the “:” and says “Oh, my colon”. You are either too young to understand the joke, or if you do get it, you are too old to find it even remotely amusing. Every “gag” in the film fits this description. In fact, I watched the film in a packed screening and not one person, child or grown up, laughed even once throughout the entire movie.
The film isn’t even really terrible – that’s perhaps the worst thing about it. It’s just like the character Gene is trying to escape from being for eternity, meh. My daughter sat through it all happily, and while she couldn’t name one thing about it she liked, she said she enjoyed it. For reference, we got less than ten minutes into “The Phantom Menace”, a genuinely terrible movie, before she screamed in horror for it to be shut off (yes, it was five seconds on from Jar Jar Binks’ first appearance).
Having said all of that, I’ve never seen something so film-shaped that in the end, isn’t even really a movie in the strictest sense. I think what a lot of critics are reacting to is the idea that “The Emoji Movie” could be what the future of cinema looks like. That is really scary, if so.