The Emoji Movie (2017)

236 The Emoji Movie

The universal panning of The Emoji Movie (2017) is not deserved nor is it the worst movie of the year. It is easy to dismiss an animated film that satirises how humans communicate. However, it does raise serious issues; so if you are not interested in hearing a defence of the film, stop reading now.

There are a number of levels at which The Emoji Movie can be read. If you expect conventional narrative logic, characterisation, emotional impact, clever script or technical originality, you will inevitably be disappointed. But if you are looking for an imaginative take on today’s mass communication culture, it is an interesting film. The animated story unfolds inside the nano-world of a smartphone, amongst the apps populated by emoji. We see ‘life’ from the viewpoint of Gene who, on his first day in the emoji directory, is deemed dysfunctional because he shows more expression than allowed by his single-dimension ‘meh’ persona. When the phone-owning teenager selects Gene to send to his girlfriend it causes communication chaos in both human and smartphone worlds. Gene becomes a doomed emoji and must flee Textopolis in search of reprogramming, passing through firewalls and big-name apps like Instagram, Spotify and Twitter. He teams up with another obsolete emoji called Hi 5 and a love interest named Jailbreak, all with deadly bots in hot pursuit while the trio flee for safety in the Cloud. Doomsday approaches when the teenager decides to wipe his phone.

Ok, ok; you were warned that it is not a conventional film. So, what’s the point? One clue is the classroom teacher who explains to cell phone-dependent students that human communication was first recorded using ancient hieroglyphics, a pictographic language similar to an emoji directory. Despite the evolution of written communication over millennia, the use of single-meaning pictographic symbols has exploded. Is this the way of the future? While the film does not answer this question, it does offer an imaginative look into the world of smartphone communication. There is a social class system that groups emoji into favourites, ordinary, and rarely used, and the favourites rule the world with popular one-dimensional messages. Ambivalent or unpopular emoji are publicly persecuted and the trash is the ghetto of the unwanted. The Smiley emoji was the first ever made and it now exerts totalitarian control through a smile that appears happy but can also mask sinister intent. Gender politics rules the emoji and tomboy Jailbreak is really a princess in disguise who is desperately trying to avoid being treated like a girl. In other words, the emoji domain is a perfect mirror of the human world.

Nobody is arguing that this is a great film, but it is not a disaster. Decades from now it will be dug up and studied as a whimsical cultural artefact that portrays the imagined relationship between humanity and digital communication. Researchers will ask why hieroglyphics returned as a universal language and why humans came to rely on homogenised icons to convey meaning. If a movie can change the way you see things then it is worthwhile. This writer will never look at emoji in the same way again.


Director: Tony Leonidis

Stars: (voices) T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris