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Thoughts on The Emoji Movie

           It came as no surprise to me, or anyone else, that The Emoji Movie was a disastrous train-wreck of a movie with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. From the moment it was announced, The Emoji Movie was a joke, little more than a punchline of what corporate Hollywood would make just to pander to a younger audience. Yet, by creating the shoddy garbage pile of a “film” (I use this term sparingly) that is The Emoji Movie, Hollywood has done something incredible—they have killed art.

PART ONE

           The “plot” of The Emoji Movie is one that has been presented countless times before: a misfit must leave home to change himself but learns along his adventure that his true value lies in his uniqueness. In this iteration of the “finding yourself” story the hero is Gene, a socially-outcast “meh” emoji who is terrible at what he does—he has all sorts of “non-meh” feelings that he simply can’t contain. On his first day of work, he is called upon from his emoji station to be used, but he freaks out at the last minute and causes a glitch in the sending of the emoji, leading to Alex (the phone’s user) embarrassing himself in front of the girl he likes. Because of this, the smiling emoji, Smiler, who is the “big status quo boss lady” decides to kill him. Gene, however, runs away from the antivirus software and hides in the “loser emoji” section of Textopolis (the city where all the emojis live together). There he meets Hi-5, who was once a famous and well-liked emoji who got to stay in the “favorites” section of Alex’s phone, but hasn’t been used in weeks and now seeks to regain his lost fame.

           In order to reprogram Gene’s malfunction and get Hi-5 back into the favorites section, the pair leave Textopolis and go to a piracy app that Alex, a fifteen-year-old boy, has on his phone for some reason. Gene’s parents then leave after him to try and find him and Smiler sends her antivirus robot soldiers outside Textopolis to apprehend Gene. Meanwhile, in a story beat stolen straight from Wreck-It Ralph and The Lego Movie, they meet Jailbreak, a hacker emoji who serves as the purple-haired punk love interest for the movie. Jailbreak refuses to help them at first, but when she sees Gene’s ability to express multiple faces, she agrees to work together to get to “the source code” in “the cloud.” Then, the antivirus robots appear in the piracy app, (despite the fact that they were given orders to follow Gene’s parents, who are nowhere in sight) and the hero trio escape through a tunnel to Candy Crush where Gene gets trapped and they have to play the game to help him escape. This scene has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the film and is only an overblown advertisement for a phone app, which one will likely notice as a reoccurring theme in this movie.

           After escaping Candy Crush, they take a tunnel to Dance Now (available now in the app store) and they have to play the game because Hi-5 pushed a button for some reason. Here they reveal that Jailbreak can’t dance, and the dramatic stakes are heightened, except they aren’t because Gene teaches her how and then they do the “Emoji Bop” together in what I assume is supposed to be a display of self-love. But oh no! The antivirus robots show up again somehow, so our trio has to escape fast, or risk being deleted. Then, because his phone is playing Dance Now music during class, Alex deletes the app, and Hi-5 fails to escape, sending him to “the trash.”

           Naturally, because of the friendship that the three characters have cultivated together after knowing each other for two hours, Jailbreak and Gene decide to use Spotify to travel to the trash and rescue their companion. Meanwhile, Gene’s “meh” parents have had a falling out because each one blames the other for their son malfunctioning. It’s ok though, because they meet in an Instagram photo and Gene’s dad reveals that he malfunctions too, so naturally they make it all up it each other Alex also decides to delete his entire phone because it sent the wrong emoji one time and made noises on its own. Gene and Jailbreak then save Hi-5 from the trash and they’re chased by a bigger, badder antivirus that follows them until they get to Dropbox, where it can’t get them for some reason.

           They then have to upload themselves to the cloud, and each character uses their own talents to get past the firewall. At this point the movie realizes it makes no sense and in a series of nonsensical rapid-fire events proceed as follows: Gene professes his love to Jailbreak, who it turns out is actually a princess emoji, Jailbreak denies him because of a throwaway line earlier in the movie about her being an empowered woman, the antivirus appears somehow and takes Gene back to Textopolis so he can die in front of the other emojis, Jailbreak and Hi-5 fly back on the Twitter bird to rescue him, Alex begins to delete his phone but chooses not to when Gene sends himself to Addie and she responds with “that was a cool emoji” (verbatim), Smiler is crushed by a giant robot, the emojis have a dance party, and everyone lives happily ever after.

           Watching the shoddy piece of work The Emoji Movie calls a story, I felt my head spinning with questions—not just regarding the plot holes and contrivances, but to the world itself. How do emojis reproduce? If emojis age in years, as is stated in the movie, how could any emoji be older than the amount of time Alex has had his phone? What if an emoji isn’t at the station when it is called upon? How does time flow in the phone as opposed to outside of it? Are all the emojis that marry the same emojis incestuous? Why do some emojis have names like “Gene” while others are simply called by their appearances, like Hi-5? Why is the Christmas tree shown in public in the first scene but then shown in the loser lounge two scenes later? How do the emojis know the history of their app? Why do actions in some apps affect Alex’s phone while actions in other apps do not? How to the antiviruses find Gene and his crew over and over again? Why didn’t Smiler send any antiviruses after Jailbreak when she first left Textopolis? Why does Alex try to delete his phone after sending one incorrect emoji and having it make noise in class twice? How does the illegal antivirus get into Dropbox? How did Smiler get the illegal antivirus? Why did Smiler feel the need to kill Gene in front of the other emoji? Why did Smiler feel a need to kill Gene in the first place? Why does the girl on the Dance Now app ignore jailbreak messing up after the second time? How do all the emojis come back from deletion? If the trash is emptied out daily why is an email from weeks ago still in there? And, most importantly, why did I choose to watch this movie. The Emoji Movie does not answer these question, because it doesn’t care.

           The Emoji Movie doesn’t care about its story, its congruity, or the specifics of its world, because none of it matters. The story beats, directly stolen from other, better, movies, are still in place, and none of the specifics beyond set up for this formulaic and unoriginal wholesale feel-good message have any relevance to the story. The pink-haired rogue stolen straight from The Lego Movie has no personality beyond what the plot demands, and the same can be said for almost any of the other characters. Gene, or, discount Wreck-It Ralph, has the defining personality trait of “feeling things” and his story arc leads to him “feeling more things” and Hi-5’s slightly more defined emotional journey leads from him wanting fame to wanting friends. All the other characters in the story are even less one-dimensional, somehow, with personality traits that are all literally written into their very names and appearances.

           But ultimately, these characters are simply set pieces. There is no investment in the world of the emojis, no feeling when the entire phone is deleted. Half the scenes in the movie are just cash cow product placement filler, and it becomes clear when one realizes halfway through the movie that none of the adventures they have seem to matter, even within the context of their own story. When the characters themselves seem to realize that their journey is pointless, it becomes impossible for an audience to care about or interact meaningfully with the film that they’re viewing, and the best that any viewer can conjure is a “meh.”

PART TWO

           The story of The Emoji Movie is a clear cash grab, and rivetingly unengaging in its poor execution, but more lies beneath the surface. The morals that The Emoji Movie tries to impart to its audience are well-intentioned (as any moral is), but also inherently flawed, and violently mangled in every scene where they are introduced. Indeed, the heaping dumpster fire of a film that titles itself The Emoji Movie exists on multiple levels of terribleness, not using poor storytelling techniques, but imparting poor morals through these techniques as well. It often contradicts itself, falling flat on its face and hopelessly bumbling between individualistic self-love and a quite utilitarian doctrine—almost impressive.

           The Emoji Movie has all the markings of a summer Hollywood “live your true self” movie at its beginning. The main character has a specific, boring role that he is expected to serve unquestioningly, and is made a pariah for breaking from this role. His sidekick also rebels against the system in his own right, trying to cheat his way back into a position of power. By focusing on these two, the story accentuates the flaws with the emoji system and how it emotionally damages those who are forced to suffer under it. Even the villain, Smiler, is affected in her own right—he constant need to maintain happiness seems to have driven her to a place of near insanity. In the opening monologue (a completely different problem), Gene points this out this flaw to the audience by noting how the laughing and crying emojis can never break their character and the viewers begin to see the thriving city of Textopolis as a flawed dystopia. However, after the first scene, little attention is given to these flaws, instead focusing on Smiler herself as a villain. The plight of the “loser emojis” (emojis that don’t ever get used) is also fantastically mishandled. They are only seen twice in the movie and the second time is in a post credit scene where they remain in their basement, unaffected by the event of the entire movie. After sitting through an entire movie with the message that we should be ourselves instead of acting how society tells us to, we see that by nature, some people will (or must) always be excluded from the metaphorical “emoji dance party” for being themselves. The “self” that The Emoji Movie pushes is not just a best self, but also a “most useful” self.

           This is expanded upon in Gene’s journey, where he goes from being a hyperactive “meh” emoji to (briefly) being a good “meh” emoji to finally learning to use his true power as a multi-faceted expression emoji. In the stages before he discovered his true potential, Gene was outcast by his peers—and any viewer could argue that this was rightfully so. Gene broke the emoji picking device and injured dozens of emojis in the process of his one mistake and possibly endangered the safety of the entire phone. Gene then realizes his mistake and goes off to “fix” himself, only to come back stronger and more useful than ever. As is the case in many stories, Gene is accepted only after his usefulness becomes apparent, and the villain is revealed as a bloodthirsty authoritarian rather than the level-headed leader the denizens of Textopolis cited her as being. All is forgiven for Gene and the emojis are given a world where they can serve their own purpose to society, whatever that purpose might be.

           Utilitarian theory is nothing new, and it has both its merits and its flaws, but the type of utilitarianism presented in The Emoji Movie is inherently flawed, as it places Gene’s happiness above the well-being of the collective for the majority of the movie. The ending in itself is also serves as a perfect propaganda point for the utilitarian theory that it begins to uphold later on. Gene obtains happiness when he is most useful to the group collective—and thus, happiness becomes associated with utility to the group. Instead of positing that happiness can be found through the self, or that the self can and should be used to help others, The Emoji Movie combines the two, raising the idea that true bliss can only be achieved when your “self” is given to others.

           Ultimately, this idea is an idea that I disagree with. Whether or not you choose to side with me is up to you, but, speaking objectively, the romanticizing of self-sacrifice is an idea that has tangible harm on audiences who are fed it without question. Modern Japan, for instance, continued to have problems with high suicide rates due to the presentation of hara-kiri, or suicide by sword as “altruistic” in many historical texts (Suicide in 20th Century Japan, 150). This is not to say that using one’s self to assist others is harmful—good deeds are the basis of a functioning society—it is simply to note that the mixed messages that The Emoji Movie gives point towards both complete discovery and complete subjugation of the self in an unhealthy and shoddy portrayal of a moral that has always been cliched at best.

           The Emoji Movie also makes the mistake of attempting to tackle “women’s issues,” despite not even passing the Bechdel Test. Throughout the movie, Jailbreak’s primary motivator is that she wants to be free to express herself however she wants, which she will obtain by reaching the cloud. The movie attempts to attach this to womanhood by attaching this to Jailbreak wanting to escape the oppressive strictures of heteropatriarchal femininity—except, in the finale, she is framed as being in the wrong for not reciprocating Gene’s feelings for her. Not just this, but the day is saved by her using her femininity and consenting to be with Gene, despite her feelings on the matter never being brought up for discussion. Despite the single throwaway line about “men getting credit for women’s work” The Emoji Movie is not pro-woman, and could easily be interpreted as the opposite of that. It defines traditional femininity as being the most useful aspect of a woman to a society and inherently ties all its female characters to something within that stricture, pushing its heteropatriarchal utilitarianist propaganda points deep into the dirt as it tries the make the point that “sensitive guys are cool too.” This is not to say that women who embrace their traditional femininity are by any means being women incorrectly—The Emoji Movie just happens to portray its women poorly, using them always as tools for the man-driven plot and never fleshing them out as characters.

           Tony Leondis offered his own interpretation of The Emoji Movie’s story, calling it a “coming-out story” which is significant, as Leondis is both the director of the movie and a gay man. If one looks from a distance and squints, the similarities between The Emoji Movie and a coming-out story can become visible. Gene is outcast for his “malfunction” as many gay teens will be. The butchering that follows this plot point is incredibly poorly done, and leads to something to utterly offensive and heterosexual to be called a “coming-out story.” First and foremost, a “coming-out story” needs to reach the very low bar of deviating from traditional heterosexuality in its story’s romantic subplots, somehow. This seems to go without saying, but the team of The Emoji Movie conveniently forgot this, instead tripling down on the action and giving the audience three heterosexual romantic subplots, those being the ones between Alex and Addie, Gene and Jailbreak, and Gene’s Mother and Father. None of these deviate at all from a traditional heterosexual romantic story, and, if anything, Gene and Jailbreak’s story enforces obligatory heterosexuality instead of contradicting it. Not only that, but the farther one goes into the plot, the less a coming out story makes sense. When Gene’s father reveals that he has the same malfunction, is he being implied to be the emoji version of “gay?” In a better movie, this could have been used as a tool to foster an emotional connection between Gene and his father, but The Emoji Movie is not that better movie, so this plot point is essentially forget after it becomes irrelevant. In the finale, Gene actually watches his parents get “erased” and can’t break out any expression except a “meh,” which is telling of how well the emoji movie establishes connections between its characters.

           The themes explored in The Emoji Movie are explore poorly at best, and offensively at worst, often taking a back seat to the far more important message of the film—the advertisements. Ultimately, the reason that The Emoji Movie does such a terrible job with its ideas is that these ideas are only borrowed plot points, there to mask the movie for what it really is—a massive commercial for phone apps. The true message of The Emoji Movie isn’t “be yourself” or even “make yourself useful” it’s “buy our product,” and everything beyond this is simply pointless fluff.

PART THREE

           It’s no secret that The Emoji Movie was a corporatist cash-grab, but it was astounding to see just how deeply that had sunk into the movie itself. The entire story is product placement after product placement, a journey to Dropbox, through Candy Crush and Dance Now,  so unabashed in its capitalism that it made me question the film industry as a whole. Where do we draw the line between business and art? At what point do we leave all hope of creativity behind and choose to instead sink into shameless cash grabs and commercials like The Emoji Movie? Then I realized, with a sinking feeling in my gut, that The Emoji Movie had indeed killed art.

           On its first day, The Emoji Movie made ten million dollars in box office sales—a fifth of what it cost to produce. Despite withering reviews and constant scorn from the demographics it seemed to be targeting, The Emoji Movie will chuckle through its entire life as a movie, because it played us all. This movie is a Frankenstein’s monster created by Hollywood, a mishmash of everything that makes money crammed into one pandering mess of a film, and I’m sure it knows this. I’m sure it knows that it looks like a dumb, out of touch, unwatchable pile of garbage, but I’m also sure that it doesn’t care about this, because it’s found a way to make money without even trying.

           The Emoji Movie probably paid for itself in the sheer amount of advertisements it crammed into its ninety minute runtime, and the young, impressionable minds watching it will all be immediately entranced by the colorful scenery of lands like Spotify and Candy Crush. Sales will go up for the sponsors, and the Hollywood capitalist fat-cats who decided that a movie should be made out of emojis will laugh all the way to their enormous Beverly Hills mansions. They knew that they could take advantage of the “car crash phenomenon” that makes people stare at things they shouldn’t, so they sent The Emoji Movie out to their theatres and made a quick buck for Sony Animation.

           But beyond this, The Emoji Movie sets a precedent. It showed that idiots like me can be drawn to this shit like moths to a light. It showed that movies do not need to have good quality, or have be art, to be marketable, and that the film industry should prioritize business and profits above all else. The Emoji Movie has proved, statistically, that quality cinema should always come second to quality advertising. The time to organize against the Hollywood capitalist is now. A boycott of terrible Sony films is the least the we can do to stop them, even though such an action would be little more than a thorn in their hide. We Must accept that our idiocy and submission to this trash is at least partially responsible for the state of film as it is in America today, and we must break free of the chains that force us into our roles as submissive cash cows.

           Good cinema does good things for those that watch it. It can be used as a tool to convey important and revolutionary ideas, or to relay important information to those that are systemically spat on by traditional education. Historically great films have caused great controversy, such as the movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird which caused riots in the south upon its release. When we let film fall to business we lose a part of our cultural identity—we submit art, heritage, and storytelling as just another part of a capitalist machine.

           We have the buying power. We choose where we spend our money, and where we place our values. No longer can I sit idly in my movie seat and watch terrible movies for fun—the time for action against the greatest threat to art in the western world is now. Resist capitalism, resist the state, and resist the attack upon the most basic human freedom of expression.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Until next time, Comrades.

-Sunshine