At 5 p.m. Thursday, I became one of the first people in this country to see The Emoji Movie a second time. (Aside, obviously, from the folks who made it — though I’m not entirely sure that some of them actually bothered to see it all the way through once.) The night before, I’d watched it at a critics’ screening, cackling along in communal contempt with my beloved colleagues, gleefully mocking a movie many of us had long ago decided we hated. “A movie about emojis? What will our rotten culture think of next?” All that said, I briefly fell asleep a couple of times, because the film is boldly bad, yes, but also boldly boring.
The next day, I took my young son to see the film, sitting in a theater filled with rapt children, most of them gleefully laughing along to a movie they had long ago decided they loved. Among those who’d preordained the movie as “good” was my son, who’d been eagerly anticipating this obvious work of art ever since first hearing about it sometime last year: “A movie about emojis? Brilliant! I hope the Poop emoji is in there!” What can I say? He loves emojis. He loves cell phones (mine, specifically). He loves the concept of poop and the word itself. Of course he was excited. And, well, the movie certainly has emojis, cell phones, and poop. (Sir Patrick Stewart plays the Poop emoji, by the way, and at one point we randomly see Poop in a swivel chair, in a nod presumably to the celebrated actor’s Star Trek role. Which, full disclosure, made me laugh.)
Anyway, I’m not here to tell you that The Emoji Movie is somehow good if you see it through the eyes of a child or a parent. The second time around, it was still lousy, a shallow knock-off-cum-hybrid of Inside Out and The Lego Movie without any of the real-world resonances or inventiveness that make those works so electric. Pixar’s Inside Out has characters traveling through a metaphorical map of the human mind, a simple yet touching way to both explain and stir our emotions. The Lego Movie uses the tale of an anonymous plastic block in a regimented, prefab dystopia finding his individuality as a way to meditate on our hierarchical world, and even to question the mind of God. To put it mildly, you’re not going to find any of that here.
The Emoji Movie borrows those films’ moves in the most tired and superficial way. A Meh emoji (T.J. Miller) who discovers that he can be so much more than Meh travels through a teenage boy’s cell phone, trying to save himself — and, ultimately, everything else around him — from being deleted. Instead of creatively concretized elements of human psychology, we have branded cameos from apps: The characters ride waves of Spotify music, find clues in YouTube and Just Dance. Meh’s parents bond in an old Instagram photo. The Twitter bird comes to the rescue. None of it makes any sense, but it’s not supposed to.
This won’t be the first time that I saw a children’s film I disliked, then promptly turned around and took my child to see it, only to have him enjoy it. One such occurrence several years ago actually prompted me to change my own opinion. (I’m sorry, Walking With Dinosaurs! You’ve provided hours of enjoyment for my family, thus belying my having called you “humdrum and lifeless.”) But a second look at The Emoji Movie absolutely did not make me like it more.
However, it did make me see at least one thing in a new light. Early on, it shows us teenagers on their phones, some running into each other because they’re not looking up. For a hot minute, the film seems like it might call into question our screen-obsessed culture. No such luck. The movie’s message amounts to “Your smartphone is great! You’d be a lunatic to get rid of anything on it!” When I asked my son if the scenes of people staring nonstop at their phones reminded him of anybody, he said they reminded him of me. Tough but fair, kid.
Look, The Emoji Movie didn’t need to be good. It simply had to have talking, running, jumping emojis in it. And it does. This whole thing was pre-sold last year to a young audience obsessed with digital culture. Still, we’re lying if we grown-ups try to pretend that this one’s not on us. Young kids can be easily distracted and entertained for a couple of hours by something like this, and even at its worst the thing is mostly harmless. But kids didn’t create the pixelated and thoroughly dumbed-down society this movie has been introduced into, like some sort of trippy, multicolored cinematic virus. Even if you keep your own offspring away from smartphones and screens, they still live in a world where everyone else is glued to such things. The crisis of language and truth cannot be laid at the feet of tykes and teens. That a movie like this doesn’t interrogate itself is a given. That the rest of us probably won’t interrogate ourselves in its wake is a tragedy.
That said, the poop was still funny. Don’t @ me.