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Less than a feeling – ‘The Emoji Movie’

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Animated film little more than a cynical cash grab 

You’ve probably never looked at the assorted emojis – the multitude of faces and various other nouns - on the messaging app on your phone and said to yourself “I’d really like to see a movie about these things. I want to know more about who they are, their hopes and dreams and the lives that they lead when they aren’t being used instead of words.” That’s the sort of thing a lunatic would do.

Or a Sony Pictures executive.

“The Emoji Movie” is just that – a movie about emojis, an animated fever dream that offers little in the way of narrative value and is practically barren of anything remotely resembling cleverness. There are brief feints at life lessons, but the real tenets being taught are far more cynical. Despite a talented voice cast, the film can’t escape its baseline mediocrity. It’s little more than an 86-minute branding exercise.

The story – such as it is – is that the app on our phones exist as their own little worlds. We go inside the phone of high school freshman Alex (Jake T. Austin, TV’s “The Fosters”); specifically, into his messaging app.

T.J. Miller (TV’s “Silicon Valley”) is Gene, an emoji living in Textopolis, is ready to start his first day at work. He’s poised to take over as the “meh” emoji from his parents, but he’s got a problem – he can’t help doing more than one face. In a world where everyone has a single job, Gene’s differences make ill-suited for the work; when a Gene-driven mishap leads to a phone malfunction, Alex decides to get his phone wiped.

Gene is forced to go on the run, trying to find a way to become the “meh” he was always meant to be. Along the way, he hooks up with Hi-5 (James Corden, “Trolls”), a former favorite emoji looking to regain his popularity. They track down a hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris, TV’s “Mom”) who could help both of them get what they want.

But Textopolis boss Smiler (Maya Rudolph, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”) has ideas of her own, unleashing all of the resources at her disposal to try and eliminate the threat by whatever means necessary.

Gene and his friends journey through Alex’s phone in an effort to become what they want to be, only to learn along the way, they might just be pretty great already – maybe even great enough to save the day.

Of course, all that saccharine low-hanging “Be Yourself” fruit is overwhelmed by the ubiquity of internet branding that turns this movie – ostensibly for kids - into an unsettling bit of consumerist propaganda. Be yourself, sure – just remember that your life needs to revolve around your smartphone.

It’s as though someone animated an extended brainstorming session by a group of middle-aged ad executives who are looking for ways to appeal to the young people – and are the sorts of dudes (because they’re definitely dudes) who refer to everyone under 35 as “the young people.” Imagine if “Wreck-It Ralph” was powered not by gaming nostalgia but by blatant commercialism and you’ve got the idea.

Director Tony Leondis – who also co-wrote this tragic mediocrity – has an undeniable eye; there are some striking visual moments good enough to almost make you forget how off-putting the rest of the film is. But a good aesthetic is far from enough; the sins of “The Emoji Movie” are far too many for a couple of brightly-colored highlights to overcome.

The cast can’t save it either. T.J. Miller seems to both be trying too hard and trying not to care; his detached irony shtick doesn’t play here and his efforts at sincerity feel disingenuous. Corden reeks of desperation – his eager-to-please deal wears thin quickly as he flails about trying to make bad bits work. The ladies fare a bit better; Faris is perfectly fine and Rudolph actually seems like she’s having fun.

There are some calculated supporting turns clearly aimed at Mom and Dad. Steven Wright plays Gene’s dad Mel Meh, because obviously. Jeffrey Ross plays an internet troll, because OBVIOUSLY. Christina Aguilera is a dance game host, Rachel Ray is Spam and Sean Hayes is the Devil. Oh, and Patrick Stewart is the poop emoji. Sorry – SIR Patrick Stewart is the poop emoji.

There’s some lip service paid to the notion of staying true to who you are and being yourself, but it means nothing amidst the onslaught of internet brands – YouTube and Facebook and Instagram and Candy Crush are everywhere.

(Hell, even Dropbox gets a shout-out. Dropbox! Let’s take a second to consider just how weird that is.)

“The Emoji Movie” is basically “Inside Out” featuring fabrications of feelings rather than actual feelings. It is shallow and bland, a feature-length commercial for the necessity of the internet entwining itself with every facet of our lives. And yet, even all of that could have been rendered somewhat palatable if the movie was any good. But it is not.

All in all, this movie is a tightly-coiled pile of Patrick Stewart – and not in the good way.

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