How much money do you think is required to get Sir Patrick Stewart to play a literal turd? It must have been a lot, even though in his role as “Poop” in The Emoji Movie, he seems to only have about four lines: one of them being “We’re number two!” and another a direct reference to Star Trek. Money is a perfectly respectable reason to do anything, but I just want to know what kind of dollar figure you’d ask for. Ballpark it for me, Sir Patrick.
When I saw The Emoji Movie on Thursday, I was one of just 10 people in the theatre — surprising for a movie poised to win the weekend. Three of the people in attendance were actual children, which is ostensibly the movie’s audience. I got to the theatre a half hour early (to “get a good seat,” lol) and once I settled in, a tiny girl who was more pigtails than body put her hand on my knee and said, “Excuse me.” She needed to get through to her seat, and my very large, adult knees were in the way. My mouth was filled with Skittles at that point and one tumbled out as I apologized — could this humiliation reach deeper into my bones? — and quickly got out of the way to sit in the very back row.
I wanted The Emoji Movie to be good. I swear I did. Despite the fact that T.J. Miller, who voices the main character, is having some very slow and painful public breakdown in the form of being a shithead on talk shows, I was still ready to give this children’s movie the entirety of my adult heart. I loved The Lego Movie, another example of callous business interests influencing a movie (to then create merchandising and, now, sequels and spinoffs), but one that was still a deeply enjoyable and funny movie that I could watch with my family. I liked Moana because I watched it twice on a flight and it made me cry and miss my mom, and isn’t that what a good movie does? My niece and I watched Frozen and memorized all the songs and screamed them with the sincerity of a drunk girl at karaoke. Generally speaking, I like movies for kids because at their best, they’re simple and earnest and they accomplish something that movies for adults rarely can, because adults are broken. Kids movies make you believe the best in the world. They make you believe you really can get both what you want and what you deserve. Movies for adults don’t get to be that, because adults have lived too much and too long to have nice things. It seems unfair that adults are the arbiters of what makes a good kids movie when we’re so broken. What do we know?
But I also like really shitty movies, movies that I will defend to the point of tears at parties while other people stand around and ask, “Why is she defending Taken 3?” I love Robocop so much that I made six of my friends see the remake in the theatre when it came out in 2014. It is the first movie to have made me cry, and I cried so hard that my boyfriend turned to me and said, at full volume, “Are you fucking kidding me?” To me, bad movies still have plenty of value.
Besides, the immediate revulsion to The Emoji Movie before it even came out with a trailer — and, to be clear, this is before they attempted some poorly conceived A Handsmaid’s Tale viral marketing campaign — seemed needlessly snobby. The cast was impressive, with Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Maya Rudolph playing Mel Meh, Mary Meh, and Smiler emojis, respectively. What was stopping this movie from being good other than an instinctive urge to hate it because it was about the internet? The premise is, admittedly, thin: All emojis are supposed to express only one thing, and “Meh” emoji Gene (T.J. Miller) malfunctions because he has more than one emotion. With the help of Hi-5 (James Corden) and hacker Jailbreak (Anna Faris), they try to get to the “cloud” so that Gene can be uploaded and fixed before their user, Alex (Jake T. Austin), makes it to tech support to fix his emoji-glitching phone. Together, they travel through the different parts of Alex’s phone, from the piracy app (disguised as a dictionary), to Candy Crush, to Spotify, even to the phone’s trash. Does this make sense? You know what, don’t worry about it. It hardly matters.
The Emoji Movie isn’t merely bad because there's hardly a plot or because the animation looks like a ripoff of Inside Out. (All of that is true, and to be clear, the viewing experience of The Emoji Movie is akin to letting someone else chew a hangnail off of your hand.) It’s bad because it’s trying so hard to cater to adults first and kids second, while accomplishing neither. In its attempt to get grown-ups to be into the movie, The Emoji Movie seems to forget that kids are watching. It’s unavoidable that the internet and the products that come with it have seeped into our culture, and kids are often better versed in them than adults are. (My 7-year-old niece recently taught my mother how to find emojis with darker skin tones.) What doesn’t make sense is making an entire movie into one long advertisement for apps that do not need more advertising.
The movie effectively shouts digital brands at you, as if you’ll find it cute that they have to save Gene from a possibly fatal game of Candy Crush, or that Jailbreak — who is actually the Princess emoji hiding her identity for reasons that are never really explained because this movie was clearly written by someone who drank too much cough medication — beckons a bird, which just happens to be the Twitter icon, to save them. (The bird makes the same sound as the notification you get a on the Twitter app, instinctively triggering my very specific Twitter-related anxiety and making me clutch my phone in fear of being subtweeted.) At one point, Gene pokes his head in the Facebook app, which leads Hi-5 to deliver some barely veiled diatribe about how the only thing that matters is how many people “like” you. (Oh, but he’s wrong, you see!!!) The joke about spam email only works if your email account is still stuck in 1999, and the scene where the lead three emojis have to dance to save their lives in a Just Dance game is more dystopian and terrifying than exciting and family-friendly.
It’s barely a movie so much as a confused attempt to both condescend to an audience about their short attention spans thanks to mobile devices while also trying to profit off of that very same audience. The only thing that’s missing from turning it into a real fever nightmare about your digital day job is a Slack reference. What, no visit through the many private Slack channels where you know your coworkers are talking about you? The emoji team doesn’t have to figure out what the right emoji response is for a “can we talk this aft” Slack from your boss?
I have so many more questions: Why do all the emojis have arms and legs but Hi-5 has to use his thumb and pinky as limbs? Why is there a bandage on him? Is he hurt? When Jailbreak and Gene ride the sound waves on Spotify (yes, really), where do they get a boat from? Why are all the advertisements in the “cloud” written in Japanese? How many times did they pat themselves on the back for turning internet trolls into literal trolls in the piracy app? Is Jailbreak (voiced by Anna Faris) supposed to be a woman of colour? Is this movie trying to be intersectionally feminist, with a woman saving the day and pointing out how often the men in her life interrupt her? And when Hi-5 shows Gene to the “Losers’ Lounge,” where the wildly underused emojis hang out (fish cake emoji, cactus emoji, broom emoji), how do you expect me to believe that Alex, a teenage boy in high school who spends his brief onscreen moments trying to ask out some classmate with his phone’s anthropomorphic emojis, has never used the eggplant emoji? If you’re going to make an adult joke in a kids movie, can you at least do the legwork? Do you think I am a fucking idiot?
In the end — and I am going to spoil this movie here, please prepare yourself for the loss — the emojis turn into GIFs, I guess. Because Gene’s ability to turn himself into multiple feelings helps his user Alex express complicated feelings to the girl he likes everyone gets on board with Gene’s defect.
But even with this pseudo-inspiring ending, The Emoji Movie is the worst thing a movie for children can be: completely joyless, disenchanted, and one very long, condescending advertisement for apps you already use. The kids who will actually watch the movie feels like a weird bonus instead of the presumably intended audience of adults who can buy smartphones and will maybe be inspired to redownload Candy Crush.
With the layoffs at MTV and Vice, there’s a lot of talk around “pivoting” to video, a move that’s clearly more for advertisers than for actual consumers of online content. This movie feels like a lot of the same, one seemingly made to highlight apps like Spotify and Candy Crush than for tiny brains who like jokes about butts and bright colours and who like it when the good guys win. But even in appealing to adults, they fail; the movie is too cynical for even the most bitter of adults to enjoy. There are no real good guys in The Emoji Movie. It’s just a sea of brands.
But you know what did make both me and the three kids in the theatre laugh? The insult “knucklebutt.” The little girl who squeezed by me to get to her seat and I really enjoyed that. Maybe The Emoji Movie actually does have something for everyone. But my god, it’s a small something.