The simplest questions are often the most profound. In the immortal words of the Bard, brevity is the soul of wit, and from this thing's conception to release one short, enduring question was on the tongues of those who followed its development with abject disbelief and those who left theatres with ashen faces and mortified minds.
Why, in another hapless bid to recreate the wonder of Toy Story while ignoring the heart and soul and messages that Pixar put into their work, did a gaggle of clueless executives greenlight a film about banal emoticons? Why did renowned, veteran, thespian actors agree to be associated with this tripe? Why is this, in all likelihood, still scheduled to make back every bit of the $50 million that went into funding this misadventure?
All these and countless more burning queries raced through my mind as I watched the procession of images flash before my disbelieving eyes. I left bamboozled, befuddled, discombobulated, uncertain as to whether or not what I witnessed was some crazed fever dream that would make Hunter S Thompson blush with admiration. But alas, my faculties were intact, and on sitting down to write this I am reminded once more that this is a product that was indeed released to the public. Such is the world we live in today.
Above everything else, this is a product. It is not something made with creativity in mind, nor is it a bold, intrepid venture into unexplored territory. This is a bold-faced, utterly unabashed advertisement for apps wearing the guise of a family feature, born from a desire to exploit new "toys", and the film's "plot", for lack of a better word, is likewise slapdash. It's a generic, tepid "be yourself" story interspersed with blatant product placement so shameless that Mac and Me finds itself humbled. Gene, a phone-dwelling "meh" emoticon in a society where emojis can only perform the task they're given or display the emotion they're assigned, is played flatly by TJ Miller who gives a performance that never rises above passable – something shared across virtually every single performance in the film. He stumbles from app to app, paying dues to rapacious corporations and blundering through sessions of Candy Crush and Just Dance as he tries to change his abnormally expressive ways through enlisting the assistance of a hacker named Jailbreak, played by Anna Faris who may or may not have been reminiscing about her Scary Movie glory days in the recording booth.
Throughout this arduous and asinine voyage, barring one brief yet merciful stretch, they are accompanied by one of the most ruthlessly humorless comedic "sidekicks" in recent cinematic history, a disturbingly uncanny hand frozen into a high-five inventively called Hi-5 who is left bitter about being laid by the wayside and denied the digital high life he once indulged in. They're pursued by Smiler (Maya Rudolph), the perpetually grinning, gratingly-voiced overseer of the city of Textopolis – and the film's idea men pat each other on the back vigorously – who seeks to eliminate Gene due to the threat he poses to the system as a "malfunction". All the while, the phone's teenaged owner, high school freshman Alex, is grappling with what many monied first-world children in the world today struggle with: smartphones. And a romantic crush. But mostly smartphones.
So our bumbling band of bozos go, off on a merry adventure towards discovery and self-acceptance so obviously telegraphed that it's safe to say you could watch it with your eyes clamped shut. Off a minuscule 86-minute running time, even less factoring in the credits, the film catapults itself through the motions and inserts every single cliche that it can crowbar into the script. Emotional moments are glanced over, striking changes are reversed in only a handful of scenes, everything feels like it's on fast-forward and consequently the central cast remains only slightly less threadbare than when they started out on their grand odyssey. It's a ceaseless barrage of noise, light and sound, with barely any downtime to allow the audience to breathe and digest, and nothing sinks in as a result. But even with this in mind – surely, if the visuals and pacing are troubled, an outstanding script can make up for such shortcomings.
Maybe so, but certainly not here. Instead, courtesy of writer-director James Leondis and fellow collaborators Eric Siegel and Mike White – whose presence is nothing less than utterly perplexing considering his repertoire – we get such insightful, thought-provoking rise on subjects like the personal desires and the changes in the way people communicate as "Wow, that's a super-cool emoji!", or "What's the point in being number one if there aren't any other numbers?" The entire script reeks of unabashed sloth. Modern lingo is crudely shoved into conversations because it is modern, ergo funny, ergo guaranteed money in the eyes of executives without any need of context or effort. In a thoroughly galling display, it shamelessly pilfers dialogue from timeless classics in a desperate bid to please any older or more cinephilic viewers who have the misfortune of watching it. Lyrics from popular songs are outright lifted to serve as plot points, and amid such platitudes almost every single statement that masquerades as a "joke" is painfully inept and made as obvious as possible for the sake of the viewers, as if the film takes a perverse glee in belittling the intelligence of the audience it's aimed it. Kids are developing – but they aren't stupid.
Character development is accelerated to ludicrous speed on all fronts as the movie barrels through the beats in a desperate attempt to end faster, and Gene is the only member of the cast who comes even remotely close to possessing some kind of arc. Hi-5 is almost completely devoid of anything resembling a character, and James Corden's proven comic chops are non-existent as the character exists chiefly to bombard the audience with insipid zingers. Jailbreak, aside from being the token female love interest and action girl, is similarly unrealised and bounces around aimlessly. Her reasons to exist alternate haphazardly; sometimes she is there to spout oddly-inserted feminist tracts about alleged emoji sexism and ignored female ingenuity, make forced statements on girl power and use random slang to appeal to the trendy crowd – "Slay!" she cheerfully shouts at one point for no discernible reason, after being invited by Gene to "put some sauce on that dance burrito" – and sometimes she's an average tough chick doing hacker business or bantering, or preaching the wonders of youness. Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge provide perhaps the only truly noteworthy performances in the film as Gene's parents, Mel and Mary Meh, whose attitudes are strikingly reflective of what the average moviegoer feels when bearing witness to this drivel.
Everything from the story to the characterisation to the humour falls utterly flat and summarily this is a blunder, a mess in every sense of the word. The lone high points are one or two genuinely amusing quips that seem positively restrained compared to the rest of the script, and the visual presentation of the digital realm that is distantly evocative of the mindscapes of Inside Out, steeped in corporate avarice instead of encapsulating developing emotions. Leondis, an avid fan of Pixar's work, tries to recreate its splendor but it is something that is simply out of his grasp. Pixar's creations are founded upon a bedrock of passion and there is precious little in the way of passion to be found here – this is not someone's baby. It is the spawn of a think tank, made solely to leech off of that which is popular, rake in a guaranteed profit and get people in seats. It is filmmaking at its most hollow, little more than extended lip service to financial benefactors while having only the barest of necessities for any kind of three-act structure, and it's a painful experience that ultimately overwhelms the few faint glimmers of hope the film has.
But it's not panful merely because of its narrative deficiencies, or crude and obvious humour, or even the nature of its existence. Above all else, the most painful aspect of this misguided endeavor is that there was promise. In a culture so thoroughly addicted to smartphones and so enamoured with all things digital as our own, a film that anthropomorphises emojis and bandies them about as the hot new way to communicate and calls them the pinnacle of technological innovation – "Words aren't cool", a friend of Alex's glibly opines near the film's beginning – this entire concept could have served as some lighthearted yet rather timely and incisive social commentary. Everywhere we look, people are glued to their phones, and there are fleeting glimpses of the possibilities that this film had that are buried away, chiefly manifesting in the real-world segments. Alex, his crush Addie and his friends are consistently enraptured by the technology they possess. For them, the world rests comfortably in their pocket, almost every interaction they make is done wirelessly, and even in the realm of the emojis the film offers some sparse commentary on the subject as Gene and his companions briefly advertise Facebook - they interact with people they don't even know, all for the sake of achieving popularity. With the right amount of self-awareness and an analytical outlook mixed into its script, it could have at least attempted to deliver on the promise that its premise held. It could have been something else, something worth thinking about, a cautionary tale on the direction our society is going in thanks to these miniature worlds within worlds, these do-all creations and enduring distractions no bigger than the palms of our hands. But honestly, the moment Sir Patrick Stewart was cast as a walking, talking mound of excreta, I believe this film's fate was sealed long before it even hit the screens.
If there is any consolation to be gleaned from this experience, however, I can report that the screening I attended was as silent as a crypt. Perhaps the developers aimed wide and went for all the wrong wisecracks – or, maybe, the youth of today have grown wise to the soulless pandering that the film industry so frequently churns out. As a firm believer in the potency of human intelligence and ingenuity, I reside firmly in the latter camp.