The Emoji Movie might have been 💯 . It might have been a work of quiet genius, in the manner of Toy Story or The Lego Movie or Inside Out: a quirky and soulful exploration of the worlds that exist in parallel to our own, investing objects that would seem merely to be dully inanimate with story and, thus, empathy. It might have been, too, a particularly timely exploration of smartphones and their contents: Here, after all, are objects that are with so many of us, at our sides and in our hands, humming bits of glass and metal that tell a million little stories with each swipe, and each tap, and each touch of a warm human pulse.
But: no. The Emoji Movie, instead, is a frenetic mishmash—not so much a single story of a parallel world so much as a roller-coaster-y tour of some of the apps of 2017: Spotify, Instagram, Twitter, Candy Crush, even Dropbox. Everything, here, is branded—even the parallel world itself, Textopolis, which is home to Gene, the offspring of two “meh” emojis. Gene is, in the grand tradition of such for-kids-but-also-not-totally-for-kids films, Different. He is not limited, in the way of the emoji, to one expression; he can make them all. But in order to realize that which makes him Different might actually make him Special, Gene first goes on a dizzying journey—through Textopolis, yes, but also through Spotify and Just Dance and YouTube and, in general, late capitalism as it is understood and manufactured by the Hollywood of the moment.
Because of that—and because also, ironically, of the premise that might have been 💯—critics eviscerated The Emoji Movie. Really gleefully eviscerated it. (Schadenfreudenunicoden?) The New York Times called it “nakedly idiotic.” BuzzFeed wrote that “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.” Gizmodo did an all-emoji review of the film featuring, primarily, the Thinking Face emoji in several permutations. So critically unloved was this film—so squandered the promise it represented—that for a moment it seemed to be in contention for that rarest of honors: a 0 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Alas, even that moon-shooting was a failure: The film currently stands at an awkward score of 7 percent.)
In a weird way, then, The Emoji Movie is not just a critical flop, but also a metaphor for a Hollywood that is struggling to find the line between branding that audiences love and branding that audiences resent. Here is a film that takes some of the most intimate tools of people’s lives—the hearts and eggplants and joy-tears and tacos and other images that help them to express their love, and their desire, and their sadness—and considers how wacky it would be if one of those images was actually a guy named Gene. Here is a film that takes the revolution that has resulted from the advent of digital communication and whimsically brands it. Emojis, after all, are not just the little doodads that live in your WhatsApp. They are also, in the most basic and most profound of ways, tools—parts of a global continuum that has included everything from hieroglyphs to emoticons to text itself. They ask questions about what it really means for something, at this point in human history, to be “universal.”
The Emoji Movie, as it happens, shares a rough premiere date with The Emoji Code, the new book from the scholar and prolific author Vyvyan Evans. Evans’s book (subtitle: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats) is an analysis—aimed at a popular audience—of the academic research that has been conducted about emojis since their creation in the late 1990s. It summons linguistics, and psychology, and cognitive science to consider why emojis have proven so popular and, so far, enduring. It reads, often, as a defense of what Evans refers to as Emoji, with a capital E: the complicated system of pictographs that augment text in digital communication. The collection of unicode that, Evans argues, “enables us to provide the non-verbal cues otherwise missing from textspeak.”
Evans’s book is a thorough exploration, in other words, of the extremely two-dimensional stars of The Emoji Movie. But it is also, in its arguments, something of an implied condemnation of The Emoji Movie. In Evans’s science-informed telling, emojis are not a language unto themselves, as has sometimes been suggested, but rather tools of communication that are productively basic: useful bridges of the emotional gaps that can exist in the dull black and white of text as it is rendered on a screen. The Emoji Code in many ways champions emojis against those who have seen the cheeky pictographs not as extensions of English, but as a threat to it—and to, by extension, language as we have known it.
And while that framing can itself occasionally read as overly two-dimensional—there are few people, at this point, who seem to believe that emojis will be the death of English, or any other language—it also situates The Emoji Code well with the ideas espoused by the linguist John McWhorter, and by the linguist Gretchen McCulloch, and by so many other canny observers of English as it lives and grows in its new digital environments: Language, breathing free, is its own kind of democracy. And that is evident online, in particular, where a good turn of phrase, or a new meme, or indeed a cleverly deployed emoji, can be so easily amplified and adapted and woven into the language. Emojis, in particular, are elastic in that way: They can mean whatever the writer, and whatever the recipient, decide they mean, together.
That can lead to a productive kind of ambiguity. Remember that tattoo Drake got a few years ago, which could be read either as two hands, praying, or as two hands, frozen in a high five? The star, as New York’s Adam Sternbergh pointed out, finally settled the matter: “I pity the fool who high-fives in 2014,” Drake clarified on his Instagram. But there would be many more debates in that vein. Are those dancing twins, symbols of female friendship, or Playboy bunnies, symbols of female objectification? Is that a toothy mouth-gape a grin or a grimace? When I texted “Drinks?” and you texted back, “🐙,” what did you mean?
This kind of ambiguity, Evans suggests, also gives way to useful flexibility. It allows emojis the kind of semantic suppleness that helps them to humanize, and augment, and otherwise expand, our text-based communications. Emojis can function as punctuation. They can work as pictographic versions of “lol.” They can convey personality—identity—with notable economy. Slack, the group-messaging service widely used for professional chatting, recently offered users the ability to add emojis to their handles, as a kind of status update—a 📅 would mean “in a meeting,” a 🚌 would mean “commuting,” a 🌴 would mean “on vacation,” and so on. Almost immediately, though, the service’s users expanded on Slack’s idea: They began using the emoji-status capability to augment their handles in more playful and expressive ways. Suddenly, Slack chats proliferated with people whose names were accompanied by screaming cats and expressionless faces and tiny, squared portraits of Jay-Z. The emojis had been used for a different purpose than the one originally intended. They had been made at once more fun and more expressive of users’ identities. They had been, in their way, democratized.
It’s a small point when it comes to emojis but a bigger one when it comes to the political power of language. Emojis are part of a broader phenomenon playing out across social media: English is exploding, at the moment, with new words and new grammars and new modes of human expression. It is alive—not in the way the creators of The Emoji Movie have imagined on our behalf (hey again, Gene), but in a much more meaningful way. As Evans puts it:
While Emoji will surely continue to evolve, and other systems and codes will be developed that will complement and, doubtless, replace Emoji as it currently exists, its emergence provides the beginning of a more or less level playing field, between face-to-face interaction and digital communication—better enabling effective communication in the digital sphere.
The Emoji Movie is notable in part because, in its very conceit, it pushes back against all of that buzzing evolution. It tries to brand it. It tries to turn it into intellectual property. As Alex French reported in a fantastic piece for The New York Times Magazine, there’s a booming business in Hollywood right now, one that involves taking existing intellectual property and, through the insistent alchemy of the studio budget, converting it into a Story. Angry Birds. Battleship. Fruit Ninja. Jumanji. And on and on.
Films like this are of course part of a much larger trend in Hollywood, the one that involves comic-book franchises, and sequels-to-sequels, and a hefty reliance on the general notion of the “universe”—films that give rise to anxieties about the reboot industrial complex and that cause people to wonder, extremely fairly, whether Hollywood is simply out of new ideas. (In 2016, La La Land was the only film of the year’s 20 top-grossers to have been wholly original—that is, not based on existing material. In 1996, nine of those 20 had been based on original screenplays.)
But The Emoji Movie and its fellow travelers are different. They aren’t merely adapting stories from another genre; they are taking something that has no story of its own—the toy, the game, the emotion—and attempting to inject story into it. As the producer Tripp Vinson told French, the changes that have come about in Hollywood over the past decade have “forced me to look at everything as though it could be I.P.” Sometimes, the results of that general approach to the world—everything can be a story—are delightful. Sometimes, they can be creatively Lego Movie-esque, their imagined worlds allowing for satire and allegory as well as entertainment. Many more times, though, those films read as cynical. They scan less as works of cinema than as weary exercises in forced anthropomorphism: big-screen versions of Clippy. (“It looks like you’re writing the script for a soulless cash grab! Would you like help?”)
And that’s another problem with The Emoji Movie. It takes all the productive linguistic experimentation that is happening every day—every minute—every second—in people’s phones and lives and reduces it down to stock characters who go through the motions of extremely conventional storytelling. Sony won The Emoji Movie in a bidding war against, reportedly, Warner Bros. and Paramount. In that sense, Gene belongs to the studio. But in another sense, Gene does not belong to anyone. Those silly little pictographs belong to us all. The Emoji Movie grafts its own plot onto the tools that real people, people who are not Hollywood studio executives, have been using to write their own stories, to have their own fun, to tell their own truths. No wonder the movie made them, in the end, a little bit 😡.