"THE EMOJI MOVIE" — 1½ stars — Voices of T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Patrick Stewart, Christina Aguilera; PG (rude humor); in general release
At one point in "The Emoji Movie," a depressed character mournfully sings this familiar but unfamiliar refrain:
"Nobody knows the touch screens I've seen,
Nobody knows my screenshots."
That's about the brand of humor you can expect from an animated film that feels like a pun and product placement-heavy, poor man's echo of 2015's "Inside Out."
In "The Emoji Movie," rather than operate the heart and soul of a human being, the cute animated characters that tell the story are operating a pre-teen's smartphone. There's an interesting angle there, but director Tony Leondis' film doesn't seem fully aware of it.
The world-within-a-world plot centers around Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), an emoji who can't stick to his function. He and his peers are supposed to provide cute visual punctuation and tonal clarification to their user's text messages. He's a "Meh," which means he's supposed to be indifferent and detached all the time, but unlike his pigeonholed peers, Gene is capable of showing multiple emotions.
Gene's rather transparent gift (He's an individual! He's not a robot!) causes chaos when the phone's adolescent user Alex tries to text his school crush and promptly humiliates himself. Down in Textopolis — the name for the app community where the emojis live and work — the emoji leader Smiler (Maya Rudolph) decides to delete Gene.
So Gene goes on the run, hoping to get reprogrammed into an obedient little Meh before anti-virus robots blast him into the infinite. Thanks to a little help from his best friend and fellow outcast Hi-5 (James Corden), Gene finds Jailbreak (Anna Faris), a hacker emoji who can supposedly help with his problem. The plan is to navigate their way through the different app worlds on Alex's phone until they can access the Cloud, which will somehow let them reprogram Gene.
In the meantime, Alex has scheduled an appointment to wipe his phone's memory, which would of course destroy Textopolis and all the other apps.
The similarities to "Inside Out" are so obvious it's difficult to watch one movie without thinking wistfully of the other. But in its transparent effort to ape the Oscar–winning Pixar film, "Emoji Movie" just manages to underscore how artificial and superficial our tech dependent, virtual existence is.
The product placement here is egregious. Gene and Jailbreak literally have to play Candy Crush and Just Dance! in order to make their way through the phone, and the glowing portrayal of apps like Instagram and Dropbox, when compared to the mockery doled out to Facebook and YouTube, suggest the makers of "Emoji Movie" were paid to promote certain apps over others.
There's also an unfortunate narrative disconnect between Gene's world and the plot assigned to Alex — we spend so little time with the boy that you almost forget his story is happening. Combined with an ultimate message that seems to reinforce kids' dependence on technology to communicate with other human beings, "Emoji Movie" scores low in most any category (unless you score films by the number of poop jokes from Sir Patrick Stewart).
There are a lot worse animated options out there for parents, but "The Emoji Movie's" derivative nature, weak humor and questionable messaging should direct the family budget elsewhere.
"The Emoji Movie" is rated PG for rude humor; running time: 86 minutes.