You can’t judge a movie by its source material: the much-maligned jukebox musical genre gave us “Rock of Ages,” yes, but it also made “Singin’ in the Rain” possible. And we were all worried about “The Lego Movie” before we saw it. So let us be clear that “The Emoji Movie” is not a soul-crushing disaster simply because its dramatis personae are the range of emotive faces and symbols that live inside your cell phone.
It is a soul-crushing disaster because it lacks humor, wit, ideas, visual style, compelling performances, a point of view or any other distinguishing characteristic that would make it anything but a complete waste of your time, not to mention that of the diligent animators who brought this catastrophe into being.
On a story level, it cobbles together pieces of everything from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Smurfs: The Lost Village” (coincidentally, Sony Pictures Animation’s prior release), and thematically it hits a tediously familiar litany of kid-movie messages: Be yourself. People can be more than one thing. Parents should support their children. Candy Crush is super awesome.
OK, that last one is a new feature, since the premise of a movie set entirely inside a smartphone has clearly opened up new potentials of product placement, whether its characters are riding boats down the musical streams of Spotify or walking through other people’s photographic memories in Instagram. As with Sony’s “The Angry Birds Movie,” this is a film that’s shameless about its origins as a pocket doodad; it also resembles that previous film by being completely shrill and stupid.
Within the phone of a hapless high-school freshman named Alex (voiced by Jake T. Austin, “The Fosters”), an emoji named Gene (T.J. Miller) excitedly prepares for his first day on the job in Textopolis. The “excitedly” part is a problem, since Gene is supposed to be a jaded “Meh” emoji, but he can’t stop himself from expressing a variety of emotions on his round yellow tennis-ball face.
His professionally underwhelmed parents, played by Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge, worry that his propensity for feelings will get him into trouble, and they’re right: when Alex clicks on him, the scanner registers Gene making a weird nonsense face, which infuriates the perpetually-cheery Smiler (Maya Rudolph), whose face bears a constant grinning rictus even when she’s calling for “malfunction” Gene to be deleted.
Gene’s only hope is to team up with Hi-5 (James Corden) to find Jailbreak (Anna Faris), a hacker who can get them off the phone and into the cloud. Anti-virus bots are eluded and lessons are learned, but to piece together the film’s dreary plotting is to give it more thought than screenwriters Tony Leondis (who also directed), Eric Siegel and a presumably paycheck-collecting Mike White ever did. (And at least one of them will have to live with the fact that he wrote the dreadful pun, “Holy Delete-o!”)
The unanswered questions are legion: Why do the emojis fear the phone reboot, when they’ll presumably return in its new iteration? Are they different from their counterparts in millions of other phones? Why does Gene have parents when most Americans are constantly switching to new and upgraded devices? And are we really to believe that teen boy Alex never uses his eggplant emoji?
Emotionally, we’re supposed to care about Gene and Jailbreak getting together, even though they’re so muddily conceived that we know he’s pursuing something dumb and her desires are merely vague. On top of that, we’re also supposed to be rooting for Alex to win the affections of classmate Addie (Tati Gabrielle, “The 100”), but of course his courtship all boils down to picking the right emoji to text her. Sorry Cyrano de Bergerac and Abelard and Heloise and Cole Porter and anyone else who’s ever used dumb old words to declare love; you’re nothing without a poop symbol.
The one non-dispiriting aspect of the “Emoji Movie” experience was getting to see “Puppy!”, a new animated short set in the world of “Hotel Transylvania.” When Adam Sandler outclasses your high-concept, high-tech functions, it’s time to switch to a flip phone.