I worry like everyone else about the miserable world we’ve built for our children, this parody of human life rifted between an overheating Earth and a bullying narcissism-enabling Internet. But that’s just my phony nostalgia, common to anyone of a certain age who can claim to recall with vivid clarity How Things Used To Be, before Facebook, before the iPhone, before whatever silly consumer-electronic toy symbolizes your own personal loss of social innocence.
The truth is that kids today are as fine as kids ever are. They’ll probably save the Earth from us. And so we only really fear for them because we fear what we have become. A shoddy capitalist product like The Emoji Movie pretends toward youth-hipness by depicting an all-American high school filled with teens who spend all day agonizing over their smartphones: What to post, what to share, what emotion-expressing yellow Pac-Man face you can send to your crush so they’ll finally notice you and say mouthwords towards your physical face. It’s a fake plastic teen reality that makes you yearn for the relative neo-realism of the CW’s 90210, but it’s also an honest depiction of a certain kind of adulthood now: A social life defined by the world in your pocket, full of pictures of people you can only pretend to know.
To list the number of things ripped off by The Emoji Movie would take all day. Suffice it to say that this is yet another CGI fairy tale where a human child’s social life is mediated by a secret society of digital cartoons who listen to only the most popular music and make only the broadest cultural references. The toys have their stories, the monsters are incorporated, emotions have their own headquarters operating from the inside out: The weirdest thing about what Pixar has wrought is how everyone in a kids’ movie now has a job, as if the mere act of having fun doesn’t count without spreadsheets.
The Emojis live in Textopolis, and that name gives you a sense of the shaggy back-of-the-napkin lack of imagination on display here. (“What did they call it in Monsters Inc?” you imagine the filmmakers pondering, “Was it Monstropolis? What about that but with text?” And then someone else said “But Emojis aren’t text, that’s the point,” and then everyone had a good long think about why they got into this business and decided sometimes it was better not to think at all.) Textopolis looks like a just-okay attempt to play SimCity 2000 and is populated entirely by Emojis, whose job is to express a single idea or emotion or concept.
As characters, the Emojis have about as many dimensions as Spot, the beloved 7-Up mascot who starred in a not-terrible Nintendo game 27 years ago. I have no idea how much The Emoji Movie cost; it looks terrible, but it’s fun to imagine how much more visually experimental your niece’s remake will be, when she borrows her mom’s iPhone and uses her crayons to draws expressions on leftover lemons and doesn’t feel the need to include constant product-placing references to Spotify and DropBox and Ubisoft’s Just Dance.
The main concept character is Gene, voiced by T.J. Miller. In recent interviews, Miller has come off much more interesting than any project he works on; this also probably means he is less interesting than he pretends to be. He’s on autopilot here. Gene is a “Meh,” but the problem is that he has too many emotions. He screws up the whole system by not being just a normal Emoji. It quickly emerges that Emoji society is, not so secretly, a totalitarian dictatorship, ruled by a happy-go-lucky corporate despot named Smiler (Maya Rudolph).
Gene has to go on the run with another misfit, Hi-5 (James Corden), one of the most horrifyingly Cronenberg-y cartoon creations since John Lasseter gave a car a tongue. Hi-5 is a talking hand, and whereas most of the Emojis look like rubber, Hi-5 has uncanny-valley skin. His palm has cheeks, and a belly that can stiffen into a 4-pack. At one point, Hi-5 turns around, and we see that this hand has a butt. Did I hallucinate this? I’m tempted to bump this film’s grade up a notch just because I’m excited for the nightmares I’m about to have about a giant talking hand singing Carpool Karaoke with my fifth-grade history teacher. Actually, I will bump it up a grade! That F used to be an F-minus!
Corden does as well as he can with lines that are mostly guiding Gene through the (lame) world of the iPhone. This guidance takes Gene to a hacker Emoji named Jailbreak. Jailbreak is a woman — voiced by Anna Faris! — and she’s the latest female character of the summer to fall into a dispiriting trend. Jailbreak comes on strong with language that promises at least one of the three male screenwriters read Jezebel once: “Women are always coming up with stuff that men are taking credit for!” she says, and “On the first Emoji set, women were either a princess or a bride!”
Of course, Jailbreak is secretly a princess, spoiler alert, who cares. Of course, she only frowns until Gene teaches her to dance, and then she only smiles. Of course, she is a Mr. Robot-level hacker, but when she is finally called upon to do some hacking, she can’t figure out a single password to get through a firewall until Gene tells her offhandedly if he were creating the password, “I’d probably use the name of a girl I liked.” Of course she says “I’m not just some princess waiting for my prince” right before she decides to return to the main-character male Emoji and help him on his journey of Messianic fulfillment, literally at one point saying “It’s because of you.”
There’s a justifiable self-loathing running through The Emoji Movie, a fragile attempt to (sigh) deconstruct the meaning of Emojis while also (sigh) demonstrating the profound possibility that Emojis are the language of the future. The film wants to say: “There is so much more to life than expressing single emotions, like Emojis!” But it also has to say: “Look at how expressive Emojis can be!” (The great emotional real-world climax of this horrible film is a girl telling a boy: “That’s one super-cool Emoji!” which is unquestionably Generation Z’s “I love the Powerglove.”)
The teen characters in The Emoji Movie were born around 2002, but the film has less to say about them than about the masochistic cultural guilt that has set into our digital lives. For that matter, it has surprisingly little to say about Emojis. Language is only as brilliant or as stupid as the person who speaks it, and Emojis can be hilarious or poignant or smart, can even be (as this movie proves) totally pointless and aggressively mind-numbing. A few months back, I suddenly realized that the Emoji “pistol” on my iPhone had changed from a real-looking revolver to a green toy watergun. I noticed this because I type this Emoji sentence at least once a day:
Revolver-to-watergun was such a simple change, affected by forces as unknowably beyond my ken as was the will of the gods to our ancient ancestors. I guess the shift from a “real” illustrated gun to a “fake” illustrated gun could smack of censorship to dummies with no actual concerns to worry about — this being the source of the vast majority of opinions formed on social media — but I found the change oddly moving, a playful statement of non-violence reduced to a single silly green gun. Dammit, I 😂!
The Emoji Movie can’t approach anything half that interesting; it starts from the idea that what Emojis really need is a lame Chosen One arc and a visual worldscape so unoriginal it makes TRON: Legacy look like TRON. The film seems above all abashed, embarrassed: It knows something has to change, but it can’t change anything. There is an awareness pulsing through this movie, as it pulses through our own lives, that so much of what once seemed like progress was the opposite of progress, that our dreams of a better tomorrow were always leading us to a miserable today. Silicon Valley, once a paragon for futurism, now symbolizes the misogynist dude-ocracy and the widening wealth gap. Appropriately, The Emoji Movie has a scene where a struggling teacher compares Emojis to Egyptian hieroglyphics: A cute attempt to frame Emojis in human history, which also reminds you that Ancient Egypt was a society ruled by god-king point-zero-zero-one-percenters.
And so, of course, we have a female Emoji complaining how the original Emojis bombed female characters back to the stone age, even as said female Emoji waits patiently for her opportunity to help her love interest become his best self. Of course The Emoji Movie soars through several branded smartphone apps with no mention of money or advertising, as if your smartphone applications were spiritual creations designed by monastic devotion. Of course, the blue Twitter bird appears for a dumb sight gag — it’s a bird, it’s chirping, who writes this stuff, Mike White I guess???? The Emoji characters fly Twitter to their final destination, recalling that one time another cartoon flew Twitter to the White House.
And of course The Emoji Movie can only end with a dance party, full of concepts who have learned a valuable lesson about how people can have emotions sometimes. Maybe you think it matters that they are trapped forever inside a smartphone. Maybe you can relate.