Gene (TJ Miller) is an emoji who finds it hard to stick to his one, pre-ordained expression: Meh. He sets out on a journey to become a better Meh with an underused high-five emoji (James Corden).
A film based on emoji must have seemed like a good idea. They're a brand recognised around the world, designed to be colourful and comprehensible across all languages and cultures. It's a built-in hit! And if The Lego Movie can prove a reality-bending, mind-twisting delight, why not a story about humanity's new pictogram alphabet? There is, theoretically, an idea there, however cynical its roots. If only anyone involved in the production had even a basic common vision of the film they wanted to make.
It's bizarre how little this seems to understand smartphones or their users. On one hand, it gets in some (grand)parent pleasing tuts at the young people nowadays and their devotion to their phones. Look at them, hacking and pirating and such. On the other, the film offers fawning depictions of real-life apps, painting them as magical worlds to visit and crowbarring in compliments about their security or functionality. So which is it: civilisation-ending crutch or box of delights?
And there's little to no internal logic. In this reality, deleted games go to your trash like some sort of PC, and internet trolls are malign forces living in pirate apps rather than actual people. YouTube shows live-action film clips - all of them better than anything else in this film - but the owner of the phone where all this takes place, Alex (Jake T.Austin) and all his friends are animated. And teenager Alex plays opera on his Spotify and makes voice calls. Sure, grandad. Nineties cartoon ReBoot showed a more sophisticated understanding of 21st century technology.
Then there's the cast. Choosing TJ Miller, with his cynical slacker persona, as the Meh emoji makes sense. Choosing him as a figure whose entire point is that he is incapable of maintaining a Meh expression because he's so passionate about everything is fundamental miscasting. James Corden's High-5, an entitled and spectacularly stupid manchild, is so annoying he makes Jar Jar Binks look like R2-D2. No one has ever invited a high five less. And Anna Faris' "hacker", Jailbreak, gets some lines offering lip service to feminism and self-determination, but ends up motivated entirely by devotion to some guy she just met so, meh.
There's little to no internal logic.
You might simply ignore the whole thing if this film didn't sully the good name of so many gifted actors. It hopefully goes without saying that Sir Patrick Stewart is wasted as the Poop emoji, but Sofia Vergara is similarly squandered as Flamenca. Maya Rudolph gives it some welly as the sinister Smiler emoji - if you've seen her Dionne Warwick in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, imagine that turned up to about 15 - but it's still a terrible, underdeveloped character that doesn't get a chance to show the strain of smiling. All. The. Time.
Who is this even for? The broad-strokes storytelling, first-base jokes and dumb characters suggest it's ten year olds and under, as does the Hotel Transylvania short, Puppy, that accompanies it. But the very focus on emojis - which young kids don't really use yet - suggests otherwise. And small kids who start the film delighted by the bright colours and cheery design soon get bored of all the product placement and chase scenes, audibly switching off as the film goes on. It's all so tiresomely over-familiar in its quest for self-expression There is one decent joke about the eggplant emoji, but that's really the height of it.
While it's tempting to sum up in thumbs down emoji, when they go low, we go high. So let's just say, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.