The Emoji Movie Is Deaf, but Not Blind

To go see The Emoji Movie when you know it’s hovering around the 5-7% level of approval on Rotten Tomatoes is a little like booking passage on The Titanic when you’re clairvoyant enough to know it’s soon going to sink. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Gene is the super-expressive emoji who headlines the plot. All in all, The Emoji Movie is as meh as Gene’s listless, indifferent parents are meant to be. When the plot kicks into high gear—Gene heading for the cloud to be reprogrammed to become a one-dimensional, single emotion like the other conforming emojis—the movie paradoxically dies. The great adventure of Gene and his two sidekicks (the emojis Hi-5 and Jailbreak) proves to be a great bore instead. Frenetic, animated action can’t hide the fact that a movie about feelings lacks any itself.

Yet the movie is selling well, so what’s going on? Beyond Sony’s marketing stunts like a flood of movie posters, billboards, and even the dispatching of actors wearing emoji costumes, why could The Emoji Movie have actually been good if not great? The script is deaf in terms of making us care that emojis really could matter in the life of a teenager like Alex, on whose phone Gene and the other cast members “live.” But the premise and promise of this movie aren’t blind to what’s happening in our society at large.

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On my phone, on which I only half-smartly leverage the tools it offers, 21 emojis are readily available to supplement any text message I send. Of those 21, 18 are variations of a smiling face.  That means 86% of my options involve positive feelings—nearly the opposite of how I and others have felt about The Emoji Movie, according to those who have declared their reactions to it on Rotten Tomatoes. Now I admit to being like others, maybe even more so. I use those emojis all the time in texting my tennis buddies, with whom I’m often a little annoyed. It’s not much fun “herding cats” as I try to align four schedules in order to play a doubles match after work or on the weekends.

In other words, emojis are helping me lie. They’re a stand-in, masking frustration, cajoling the others to fall into place and play despite a nagging injury or a busy day. Writ large, emojis provide a way not to write, not to figure out how best to express your own feelings in words. Or again, emojis serve to shade the truth. The truth is The Emoji Movie stinks. Emojis are easy to use, hence a large part of their popularity. And now The Emoji Movie has taken the easy way out. It’s not a movie so much as it is, at times, a walking, talking exercise in branding. App and game references abound, including: Spotify, the Twitter bird, Just Dance Now, Dropbox, Instagram, and Candy Crush. Did I leave out anyone? Are there any other corporate sponsors or product placements Sony sought to build into the movie’s script?

Today, the sweep of human history from the use of hieroglyphs to emojis, which began late in the 1990s, has brought us to the point where, in the new digital era, face-to-face conversations or even a phone call have obviously become withering options. I’ve joined the parade, but not without a twinge of guilt. Emojis can clearly democratize communication. Almost anyone at any age (four-year-olds, pestering their parents to see the movie?) can use an emoji.  And there are the pseudo-customized, “intimate” emojis we can use (a taco, or whatever) to “reinforce” our unique, personal identity.

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Or is it that our selfhood is becoming merely a brand association, a small planet pulled into the gravitational pull of a universe cluttered with company logos, products and services? In effect, The Emoji Movie could be “celebrating” the opportunity to further commercialize communication, if only there was enough joy on screen to justify that verb choice. A relentlessly happy-faced emoji, named Smiler, is cast as the movie’s anti-hero, the falsely-grinning enforcer who rules the city of Textopolis hidden inside the smartphone of Alex: The dumb-ass teenager struggling to send appropriate text messages to a cute girl. But what if Smiler is actually, most of all, the embodiment of fake (emotional) news to which we all lazily succumb? In the end, I found that a far more compelling, albeit worrisome, prospect than the movie on the screen in front of me.