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THE EMOJI MOVIE is Chaos (Review)

If you’ve decided to see The Emoji Movie, it stands to reason that you’ve also decided you’re prepared for whatever the ramifications of a reality in which emoji live and think and undertake 86-minute-long adventures all within the bounds of your smartphone. And how much could this really entail, after all? You’d be hard-pressed to find a prospective source property drier of narrative oil.

But charged with filling those 86 minutes with something resembling a story, The Emoji Movie drills four layers into the terra of its titular abstraction, mining up plot points and thematic beats from every aesthetic construct tangentially related to the fabrics of digital newspeak. The result of this ambitious excavation: perhaps the most convoluted high-concept science fiction film you’ll see all year.

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If your reaction to the above is anything in the neighborhood of, “How?”, then you’ve nailed down The Emoji Movie’s fatal flaw. For sure, the film is never wanting for material. From the very notion of a society populated by beings with unchanging facial expression, The Emoji Movie extracts a totalitarian dystopia in which your civil service position is ordained by your God-given mood; their relationship to “the User” is not quite one of sanctified adoration, a la Toy Story, nor distant bewilderment, a la The Lego Movie, but of intimate, fearful distrust; a journey outside the bounds of Textopolis, where emoji live in perpetual servitude, reaps a long and treacherous journey among a half dozen nightmarish purgatories modeled on familiar apps. But without any of the intellectual substance you’d need to sustain such a complicated ordeal, you’re left only with a movie in which things, plain and simple, just keep happening.

And happen they do, at breakneck pace and with little regard for one another, nor for the thematic web ostensibly tethering them together. Our central players—Gene, a would-be “meh” emoji banished from society for his inability to stifle his unique emotionality (TJ Miller), a high-five desperate to reclaim his glory days as “the User’s” ideogram of choice (James Corden), and a mysterious hacker who wants off this gosh darn phone and into the Cloud for good (Anna Faris)—scamper between the realms of Candy Crush, YouTube, and Spotify in evasion of a troop of mindless murder-bots, ordered on a killing spree by the tyrant Smiler (Maya Rudolph). This all concurrent with the threat of total deletion, which looms large over their world when the sentient icons get word that “the User” has made an appointment to wipe clean his phone’s memory.

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New rules sprout from the woodworks as the universe calls them, while old are rejected when no longer in service to the story. It plays as ridiculous as it sounds, which would be just dandy if the movie didn’t lapse a bit too frequently into self-seriousness. Disembodied smiley faces spouting maxims about being true to yourself and eschewing popularity for real friendship doesn’t quite work, at least not with material as flighty as that on hand here.

Meanwhile, human teens, even those so entrenched in the digital age as today’s, talking this regularly and unironically about emoji plays severely hokey. The science fiction concepts that do recognize their own absurdity with self-effacement play best—one-off jokes about cat videos and robo-dancing stand out. But stunningly enough, this mentality is vastly overshadowed by moments that are really trying to hammer home the sincerity.

Far be it from me to insist that a sincere Emoji Movie couldn’t work, but just as inconsistent as the sci-fi is the emotionality. Third act revelations tackling the glitch in Gene’s nature and full-stop abandonments of the stories, motivations, and identities of his co-adventurers don’t exactly leave viewers with as wholehearted a message as the film seems to think it’s packing. Even a message as vague as “Be yourself” seems undercut by the conclusion of the film; really, the message is: Be Gene. Be Gene and run from murder-bots and teleport into the human world via Instagram and drop-hack into the cyber-trobe of InstaTron. I don’t know, guys. It’s all User-damn chaos.

Rating: 2 out of 5

2 burritos

Images: Sony

Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Send Michael an emoji of your choosing on Twitter @micarbeiter.

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