8 Bizarre, Shameless Ways 'The Emoji Movie' Turns Phone Apps Into Plot Points
In the 1984 cyber-punk novel Neuromancer, science-fiction writer William Gibson imagines a vision of the future where hackers "jack-in" to cyberspace, allowing them to inhabit a virtual world of beauty, chaos, and danger. The book, which later influenced blockbusters like The Matrix, was reflective of a period of technological innovation defined by a sense of exploration and possibility.
The Emoji Movie, a new children's animated comedy out now in theaters, is a similarly dystopian work indicative of our current digital era: brands rule, humans drool.
After the success of The Lego Movie and The Angry Birds Movie, the existence of The Emoji Movie shouldn't be surprising. The brutally reviewed movie tells the story of Gene, a "meh" emoji voiced by wayward Silicon Valley star T.J. Miller, who must leave his home of Textopolis on a journey of self-discovery deep into the matrix of the phone he lives in, which belongs to a doltish 14-year-old boy. A hi-five hand emoji (James Corden) and a codebreaker emoji with a beanie named Jailbreak (Anna Faris) join him. Yes, the poop emoji makes an appearance as well.
The movie attempts to upload some Pixar-lite sentimental lessons about the importance of self-expression and the value of friendship, but where Toy Story whimsically brought toys like Mr. Potato-Head head to life, The Emoji Movie turns all the apps on your phone into "real" places for Gene to travel through. Think of it like that Chappelle's Show sketch that imagined the internet as a real place or like a Magic School Bus episode set in a smartphone -- only way less funny and way more nakedly cynical!
How exactly does the movie accomplish its advertiser-friendly, tween-pandering task? To crack the code, let's take a closer look at a few of the more ridiculous examples of corporate-approved phone humor found in this endlessly strange, thoroughly depressing Planet of the Apps.
The primary villain in The Emoji Movie is Smiler, a constantly grinning emoji voiced by Maya Rudolph. Assisting her are a team of bots that look suspiciously like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. Throughout the film, these laser-shooting henchmen chase Gene and his pals across the interface of the phone. To distract the bad guys, our hero emojis tempt them into the YouTube app, where the little droids are distracted by that classic YouTube distraction: a cute cat video.
Would the bots be equally distracted by a Netflix binge-session? We'll never know because the app, which would probably be on the phone of a kid like the one in the movie, is conspicuously absent. (Crackle, a Sony owned streaming platform, makes a cameo appearance on the phone.) It's almost like Sony might have lingering bad blood with the streaming giant and views the company as a competitor. [Insert "thinking face" emoji here.]
In one of the quicker gags in the movie (surprising, given how much Mark Zuckerberg's social media platform dominates daily life -- maybe there's an animated Facebook movie in development somewhere else?), Gene passes the bright blue app and we get a couple of limp jokes about people sharing boring photos from their lives. In the movie's defense, it's exactly the type of lame humor that you might find on your Facebook feed!
At one point, Gene finds himself trapped inside Candy Crash and eventually lines up with a few yellow candies to escape. The scene lasts for an eternity. It feels like a commercial break. While the popular app might be a great way to waste a few minutes on your morning commute, it's actually not that visually compelling to watch on a giant movie screen. It's almost like shit on your phone don't instantly translate to brilliant cinema. Crazy, right?
Of all the brands featured in the The Emoji Movie, Instagram receives possibly the most reverential and loving treatment. In one of the movie's only (vaguely) charming plot threads, Gene's "Meh" emoji parents, voiced by stand-up comedian Steven Wright and actress Jennifer Coolidge, stumble into the photo-sharing app. (Side note: The existence of "parents" in The Emoji Movie raises some interesting questions about emoji reproduction that the filmmakers fails to adequately address.)
Instead of portraying Instagram as a cut-throat place where social media influencers battle for likes and teeth whitening sponsorships, the movie envisions the app with a rosy filter. Gene's parents rekindle their love while walking around a photo of a French vacation. It's like Inception meets… The Emoji Movie. You can't forget you're watching The Emoji Movie while watching The Emoji Movie. It's impossible.
Unlike many of the other app's in the movie, I had never heard of Just Dance, a game that swipes its title from the Lady Gaga song of the same name. It seems like Dance Dance Revolution but… different because it doesn't have the little dance-pad? I'm not sure -- ask a teen. Anyway, this scene is also pretty dull and is mostly noteworthy for the part where Gene invents a dance called "the Emoji Pop," which the movie seems convinced will quickly sweep the nation. It mostly involves making weird faces.
Hollywood screenwriters have a fixation with "the cloud" as both a technological concept and as a way to make labored dad-jokes. Look at how the Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz comedy Sex Tape wrang the concept dry through constant "the cloud" references -- or this throwaway line from Creed where aging meat-puncher Rocky thinks "the cloud" is, you know, a fluffy thing in the sky. The Emoji Movie one-ups them all by going big on branding: This isn't your grandpa's cloud joke -- these are DropBox gags!
The word "DropBox" is used so often in The Emoji Movie that it starts to feel like a piece of native advertising for the file-hosting service. The entire plot is built around the idea that DropBox will provide salvation for our weary protagonist: Gene wants to be uploaded into the cloud -- securely, of course, through DropBox -- to illegally modify his code and become a less expressive emoji. How do the animators conceive of the app? As a wild roller-coaster ride! I've used DropBox for many years and have never experienced motion-sickness. The Emoji Movie is a lie.
There were more than a few groans in the audience during my screening when, deep into the mercifully under-90-minutes journey, Jailbreak suggested a short-cut by saying, "We can take the music streams in Spotify!" For some people, Spotify is a useful tool for listening to Ween albums you haven't heard yet. For the characters in The Emoji Movie, it's literal stream of data where you guide a boat through the waters of Rihanna's "Diamonds." (No Ween, sadly.)
One of the oddest things about this scene -- and the movie in general -- is that we learn nothing about the taste of the teenager who owns the phone in the movie. (His name is Alex but you won't remember it.) Unlike Pixar's Inside Out, which has a very similar story structure and central conceit but is built around the psychological makeup of a very specific little girl, the kid in this movie could not be more generic. He's oppressively bland, like the human embodiment of that hilarious study Google published about what teens think is cool. Alex is the Übermensch of the Generation Z tech-branding-as-identity-signifier trend: It's so lit, fam!
I almost thought Twitter was going to be totally absent from this movie -- most kids are smart enough to stay away -- but towards the end of the film the only app on the President's phone makes an appearance.
(I can't believe I'm typing this, but mild spoilers for The Emoji Movie follow.)
There's a recurring joke in the movie about how when a princess whistles, birds appear. It's not funny, but it does have a payoff. As the story lumbers towards its conclusion, we find out Jailbreak, the hacker emoji, actually used to be the princess emoji -- seriously, don't ask -- and she uses her princess powers to summon a winged creature. Guess what form it takes? That's right, the Twitter bird, which Gene can then ride Never-ending Story-style back to his hometown.
If you've read this far into an article about The Emoji Movie, you might be asking yourself, "Do I need to see this movie with my own eyes to prove it's real? Should I too, like Gene, climb aboard a Twitter bird and carry myself to a local theater? Is it worth jacking-in to cyberspace for?" The answer is probably not. Save yourself. Or, as a character in The Emoji Movie suggests at one point, "Go read an e-book!"