Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Emoji Movie (2017) - Movie Review

2017 has been an… interesting year so far. In the real world, a series of natural disasters and what appears to be a Twitter-influenced update on the Cold War going on between the U.S. and North Korea has put a lot of worry in people that we are on the brink of destruction. Oh, and some other stuff concerning sexuality just to make everyone seem even more petty than they already are. In situations like this, I and quite a few others would turn to popular entertainment to get away from it all: Movies, TV (or rather Netflix nowadays), video games, literature; whatever gets the mind off things for a little while.
Well, in terms of movies at least, that isn’t working all that well either. Over the past couple of months, a series of underperforming releases have resulted in some of the lowest U.S. box office returns on record. If it wasn't for It breaking audience records at the same time, the industry could be in legitimate trouble at this stage. As much as people are quick to jump on whatever hate bandwagon that could even remotely explain this, with everyone from the filmmakers to the critics to the general audiences getting thrown into the crossfire, I’d like to think that there is a far simpler explanation for all this.
That explanation, as you may have already guessed, is the subject of today’s review: A film that has gotten legendarily awful reviews, the kind that can secure a release into the annals of all-time bad filmmaking. And I can hardly friggin’ blame them, quite honestly, and you’ll see why as we get into this. This is The Emoji Movie… when this first got announced, I knew this would be a real piece of work, but even that couldn’t have prepared me for this.

The “plot”: Inside the world of a smartphone, emojis have a life of their own. ‘Meh’ emoji Gene (T.J. Miller) wants to do his parents (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge) proud but there’s a problem: Gene is much more than just Meh about things in life. After a day at work goes horribly wrong, and chief emoji Smiler (Maya Rudolph) plans to erase Gene entirely, he, Hi-5 (James Corden) and hacker Jailbreak (Anna Faris) have to find the source code and make Gene into a proper emoji before he, and possibly everyone else in the phone, are wiped away.

This is a surprisingly solid cast, at least in terms of actors fitting their roles. Miller’s usual manic energy definitely fits the multi-expressional emoji he’s given, Corden essentially is the annoying best friend/fat best friend and he works in that frame okay, Faris as the hacker Jailbreak may be let down by her desperately-trying dialogue but she still fits decently, and Steven Wright as Gene’s ‘meh Emoji’ father is the kind of casting that would make Pixar jealous… if only his character stuck to that, but we’ll get into that in due time. Rudolph is easily the best here as Smiley, managing to turn her character’s endless grinning into something pretty unnerving; she ends up representing what could have made this film genuinely good but, again, all in due time. Coolidge works as Gene’s mother, Patrick Stewart gives the poop emoji that touch of faux-class that makes Stewart’s more comedic roles work as well as they do (usually), Sofia Vergara as the flamenco dancer emoji… ugh, is lazy racial humour that is not worth discussing at any great length.

As much as the idea of an ‘Emoji Movie’ immediately sets off the bullshit detectors, there is definite potential in that idea. Using characters that exist solely to portray one emotion and only one emotion isn’t as basic as it sounds; the fact that Smiler is as engaging as she is shows that there is wiggle room for comedy through one-dimensional characters. It has more potential than Divergent did with a similar notion, at the very least.
Shame that the film fails to deliver on any of it. In terms of writing, the film runs the gamut on styles of bad joke writing. One-note racial (racist?) humour? Check. Jokes that were mildly funny but then explained to the audience, negating the laughs? Check. Punchlines that most if not all of the audience have heard countless times before? Big fat fucking check. It is legitimately painful to see everyone in the cast, made up of mostly accomplished comedic actors, floundering this badly for a laugh, any laugh. I’ve talked about dud comedy before, but this is something that is hard to really put into words: It’s broken, no other way to put it. Emojis parade across the screen, say a single joke based on their image that only gets mild variation as the film goes on, audience loses the will to live; wash, rinse, repeat.

This isn’t helped by the “plot” tying everything toge… no way I can finish that sentence; that’s how weak the narrative is here. It comes across like the studio got a list of popular apps that it could license (Instagram, Twitter, Candy Crush, Spotify, etc.), arranged them one right after the other, and then tacked on something to do with emotions for the finisher; that’s it. Actually, there’s a really major signifier of the film’s methods in the soundtrack. Pitbull and Christina Aguilera’s Feel This Moment gets used quite a bit as the film goes on. For anyone who hasn’t heard it, the only reason anyone remembers it at all is because it has a breakdown sampled from A-Ha’s Take On Me, a much better-remembered pop song. That is essentially the mindset behind everything shown here: “See this thing you recognize? You know what this is. That makes us a good movie.” There is nothing else to the plot, other than Gene, Hi-5 and Jailbreak wandering through apps desperately trying to find one.
It is insanely cynical in how it thinks that just by pushing things onto the screen that audiences are familiar with (they even included the infamous ‘Pen, Apple, Apple-Pen’ meme once they get to the YouTube app), it can get away with no sodding story. Gene wants to be fixed and be a proper ‘Meh’ emoji, aimlessly goes through the User’s smartphone, and reaches an ending that is as rushed and clamouring as it is nonsensical.

And yet that is still not the worst of it; that comes in once the emojis start talking about how Users use apps and emojis to communicate. Basically, the film boils it down to using actual words and sentences “not being cool anymore”, and so they communicate in a dumbed-down exchange of pictures. It tries to reconcile this by comparing it to Egyptian hieroglyphics in the most half-hearted way imaginable, but the point is made clear: This film thinks that its audience is stupid and has no shame in admitting to it. In a weird change of pace, this film’s problem isn’t that it doesn’t understand technology and the culture surrounding it (it is rather baseline, but it has decent enough understanding of it), but that it seems to hate people who engage in it.
For a film this mass-marketed, this high-profile in its casting, and this baffling as a production in its own right, I hardly think this has any excuse of insulting the intelligence of others and the “sheeple” mentality some associate with social media. I’ve made my point many times before about how I hate anyone and everyone who thinks shaming people for their pop culture intake is a sensible thing to do, but this manages to one-up that in a way I honestly never saw coming. It starts out by insulting its target audience (smartphone-using teens), wasting their time with a nothing of a plot and barely a single laugh, and then tries to wrap it up in a message about the complexity of emotions that is watered-down to the point of having zero use.
There’s also the incredibly weak attempts at subversion of gender tropes with Jailbreak trying to dispel myths involving ‘female emojis’, which get trampled on once the film doubles-back and shows those myths to be completely accurate in the film’s world. Rather fittingly, I am starting to run out of words to describe how much contempt I have for this utter waste of my goddamn time; maybe a picture with all the emojis set on fire would sum up my feelings.

All in all, this cynical piece of trash getting the loathsome reception that it has is easily the least surprising thing that has happened all year. The cast is wasted, the story is largely non-existent, the comedy doesn’t just fail as it shows many different varieties of failure with its jokes, and the blatant disrespect the production as a whole seems to have for its own audience makes all of that even worse to sit through. Add to this to the reception it’s already gotten, complete with Rotten Tomatoes delivering a consensus that unfortunately ends up proving the film’s point about the dumbing down of language, and you have what is essentially an avatar of the blind avarice and lack of respect so many people associate with the Hollywood system. I expected terrible from its reputation, but even that couldn’t have prepared for what may go down as the movie ticket that I most regret buying; not even Vacation got me that far.

Might as well quickly get into the “Puppy!” short that preceded the film, as I struggle to think of anything positive to take away from this experience. It’s good and gets a few chuckles but it’s like watching Robin Williams open for Larry The Cable Guy: It sets a benchmark that the following set, despite being several times longer, is in no way capable of matching.

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