Like the kids say these days (when they actually use their words), The Emoji Movie has me feeling some type of way, making me think things that I may regret writing down later. For example, The Emoji Movie has convinced me that Toy Story has ruined the animation genre. Now, I know what you’re thinking; Andrew, how can you say that? Toy Story was not only a groundbreaking achievement in CG animation when it was released back in 1995, it’s a timeless classic of storytelling and characters. How could a film be so transcendent and damning at the same time?
I guess it’s a classic syndrome of “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. I, like many, consider Toy Story a masterpiece, a huge part of my film education growing up and among my favorite films of all-time. The film is almost too good, as it’s inspired a cycle of a story type that has marked an irremovable stain on even the best of the animation genre over the past twenty years. The film not only effectively murdered 2D hand-drawn animation with its technological breakthrough, but the “unlikely friends go on a journey” archetype has been imitated over ad nauseam. The model has been used to great effect for sure, but it has withered thinner and thinner, as less talented individuals have used the formula for their own diabolical needs.
The Emoji Movie feels like the nadir to all of the good that Toy Story brought to film, the Brutus and Cassius stabbing Caesar in the back after his build-up of the Roman Empire (or however that story goes, if it doesn’t feature the poop emoji, it might as well be sanskrit these days). Ripped straight from the backbone of about a dozen better films, The Emoji Movie is a soulless recycling of pop songs, jokes, and plot lines. It’s a film so pre-packaged I’m surprised the filmmakers even bothered to take the price tag off of it before they shipped it off to theaters.
Right off the bat, The Emoji Movie fails to clearly even establish it’s universe. The emojis live within the phone in Textopolis, an ill-defined metropolis. Apparently you start as a kid emoji and then grow up until you are old enough to “work”.You get your own Hollywood Square on a big grid as you wait for the human user of the phone to select you when they’re texting or captioning a picture (at least that’s how I think it works, to my recollection we don’t even ever see it used correctly). There are two main types of emojis; you’re either born (or conceived? Do emojis have sex? They don’t appear to have genitalia.) as an object like Poop (Patrick Stewart) or the Devil (Sean Hayes), or you’re born as a facial expression. Gene (T.J. Miller) is a “meh”, a passive face who is supposed to have no reaction to anything but can’t help his emotions. Since other faces like his father and mother (Steven Wright and Jennifer Coolidge) don’t have these emotional struggles, I assume that this is some sort of birth deficiency.
The emojis live inside of the phone of Alex, a freshman in high school and the stand-in for Riley from Inside Out. Whereas we learned a lot about Riley in that film all we know about Alex is that he appears to be kind of an idiot. He really likes this girl in his class, but when Gene freaks out on the first day of the job and makes the wrong face to send to her, he decides it’s time to completely wipe all the data from the phone (why would that danger emojis? When he reboots the phone, they’re all still going to be there right?). Since his screw-up damages the phone’s reputation in Alex’s eyes, the always happy but not-so-secretly maniacal Smiler (Maya Rudolph, the standout voice in the film) wants to delete him.
Looking to fix himself, he teams-up with the High Five emoji (James Corden) to leave Textropolis and get onto the Wallpaper, an in-between zone from app to app. High Five used to be a “Favorite Emoji”, and is looking to get back on top. He also for some reason has a band-aid on his pointer finger, which is never explained, and appears to have a butt, so he’s naked and hugging people all the time, which is gross and borderline assault. The two of them find Jailbreak (Anna Faris), a rogue emoji who looks exactly like Wydstyle from The Lego Movie and knows how to get them to “the Cloud” and reprogram them. You can probably see where the rest of the story is coming from a mile away, a mishmash of Inside Out, Wreck-it-Ralph, Bee Movie, and The Lego Movie with all of the best elements of those films thrown in the trash bin.
The only way that this film could’ve worked is if tongue was firmly in cheek, if The Emoji Movie had a sense of humor about its cynical conception and was satirical. For about 15 seconds, it appears that’s where we’re headed, with Miller’s opening narration mocking milennials and their lack of attention span. The film completely abandons this potential, however, and gives in to exactly the same things its mocking. Completely convinced that emojis are the future of communication, this is a movie written with the intellectual acuity of a message comprised by just emojis. It’s short, direct, and weightless, meant for the smallest of children with the most basic and nothing of messages.
How many movies have done the “Be Yourself” message to this point? The Emoji Movie should’ve taken it own advice and tried anything original. It’s fatal flaw (among many) is that the film is a toxic mix of boring and incompetent. The film doesn’t even seem to be informed in its own brand of cynicism, possibly written by people who didn’t even attempt to research the topic they’ve attempted to profit on. For example, the film implies that the Eggplant emoji is a neglected emoji, banished to the basement of “Forgotten Emojis”, when it is well-known knowledge that the eggplant emoji is hilarious and is used often (#JusticeforEggplant). There’s also a major sequence in the film set within a “Piracy App”, with trolls and spam hanging out in a saloon-type dive bar. In my personal experience, this application does not exist, and if it does, why would it be on the phone of a fifteen-year old kid?
The Emoji Movie is what happens when progression is rejected, when a popular style is diluted to the point of serving something truly ugly. It represents what needs to be a wake-up call for the genre, which is still producing plenty of quality content but could use a makeover or a different backbone upon which its stories and characters are built. The Emoji Movie surely is an outlier, with its lack of creativity and remarkable ability to look expensive and cheap at the same time, but it represents what a lack of effort to move forward could represent in the future. We need to respond in full force if we want to prevent this kind of decay to become widespread, with words, not just winking faces.