"Words aren't cool" is the courtship advice imparted by one texting teen to another in "The Emoji Movie." That statement is the canary in the coal mine that this movie is most decidedly not "Cyrano de Bergerac." Will Alex (Jake T. Austin) choose the right emoji to express his ardor for Addie (Tati Gabrielle)? Or will "meh" emoji Gene (T.J. Miller), the movie's protagonist, mess it all up for him? Perhaps we should just throw our smartphones into the sea and let the waves take us now.
"The Emoji Movie" is an easy, cheap target for abuse. The marketing campaign centers on a chocolaty brown you-know-what named Poop (voiced by Patrick Stewart) adorning our bus shelters and billboards, for crying out loud. If we are trolled in this way, the only answer is to troll right back. And the truth is that "The Emoji Movie" is exactly what you expect: There's no need to wait and see if it surprises, if maybe it's potentially great. Nope, it's a perfect reflection of its main character — meh.
If you were to imagine the story told by "The Emoji Movie," it's likely this would be the one you'd dream up. It's just that obvious. When malfunctioning Gene starts a glitch in Alex's phone, he goes on an odyssey from app to app, hoping to reprogram himself to express only one emotion, the way emojis should. But, of course, what makes him different, his "malfunction," is what makes him unique. On his journey, he makes new friends, falls in love, learns to accept himself, and manages to become a new, more evolved emoji, expressing a multitude of emotions at once.
Director Tony Leondis co-wrote the script along with Eric Siegel, and surprisingly, Mike White ("School of Rock") is also credited. But for a film that wants to imagine the world inside smartphones, this story just feels so unimaginative and low-stakes. It's tied too closely to the way we use smartphones to create a transporting, wild new world. Every step of the journey is to prevent Alex from restoring the phone to factory settings, destroying the world of Textopolis, where emojis live. But there's no explanation as to why the emojis can't just come back, if it's all digital detritus. Therefore, it's hard to care about whether Gene can consistently make a "meh" face and if he'll be eaten by anti-virus bots.
There aren't any real jokes, and most laughs come from app recognition — Candy Crush, the Twitter bird, and look, now they're taking a row boat on the "music streams" of Spotify. It's truly just "Intellectual Property: The Movie." If we're laughing at simple brand recognition, then yes, it's true, words aren't cool anymore, and smartphones have made us dumb.
"The Emoji Movie" isn't terrible, it isn't offensive or outright bad. It just is, and there could be far worse ways to spend 86 minutes. But maybe, just maybe, it'd be the better choice to spend those 86 minutes outside, or reading a book, or talking face-to-face with another human being. Because "The Emoji Movie" could not be more meh.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘The Emoji Movie'
Rating: PG for rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: In general release