Emojis bring a little bit of humanity to our digital communications these days. Each emoji is a static icon that expresses what we humans want to convey to each other. But what if emojis had feelings of their own? What if that smiley-face emoji were actually crying deep down? What about that emoji's humanity?
That's the question that The Emoji Movie poses. This computer-animated comedy adventure is set in an anthropomorphized society of emojis that resides in a cell phone owned by Alex, an adolescent boy voiced by Jake T. Austin. The story itself follows Gene, a "meh" emoji voiced by T.J. Miller (who previously gave a thoroughly enjoyable voice-over performance in Big Hero 6).
Like last year's Sausage Party, much of the humor in The Emoji Movie comes from imbuing inanimate objects with human sensibilities, and the two films also share a willingness to engage with sociological issues. Sadly, this movie isn't nearly as witty as Sausage Party was, even beyond the fact that the latter benefitted from an R rating. And compared to other family-friendly films like Pixar's Toy Story and Inside Out, The Emoji Movie doesn't quite reach the same emotional depths as its peers. As such, older audiences aren't likely to be captivated.
Instead, this colorful and cartoonish world will appeal mostly to grade-school children and preadolescents with smartphones in their pockets (at least, it will if they can get past the PG humor and connect with the narrative). That said, teen moviegoers -- really, anyone who remembers the pain and frustration of trying to fit in socially - might still connect with Gene's story. The film examines a universal dilemma of growing up: What do you do when you find out that you're a square peg in a round hole? Do you conform to what society and your parents say you're "supposed" to be?
Fail to do so and you're cast aside. In Gene's case, his inability to suppress his emotions causes him to make the wrong faces at the wrong time. It's a catastrophe that incurs the wrath of a supervisor emoji named Smiler (voiced with maniacal glee by the talented Maya Rudolph). Smiler is so furious at Gene's mishap that she sends assassin bots after him in order to completely delete him.
Gene flees and takes refuge in the Loser Lounge, lumped in with the rest of the outcast emojis. He isn't content to remain there, though, and decides to try to get back on the good graces of his society.
Along the way, he teams up with Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden), a pudgy male emoji who is, like Gene, trying to find a home in society. Unlike Gene, however, Hi-5 is driven by the facile goal of obtaining instant fame and popularity. To achieve this, he and Gene leave their hometown of Textopolis and search for a hacker emoji named Jailbreak (voiced by Anna Faris) who can help reprogram both of them. But in order for her to do this, they must break past the firewall and reach the source code. Jailbreak decides to join them on their journey when she sees an opportunity that would allow her to be free of society's expectations.
The movie frequently touches on the theme of acceptance and the conflict between the self and society. It's encouraging that Jailbreak sees Gene's ability to express different emotional facets of his personality as an attractive trait to be celebrated, which in turn suggests that our inner lives are larger and more complex than what typical gender stereotypes would suggest.
Gene ultimately finds acceptance via his love interest and learns to remain wholly himself while also being a part of society. It's a well-worn trope, but one that's worth exploring with each generation. How do you embrace the many facets of yourself and find a way to fit into society without risking your integrity?
The Emoji Movie could've used a better title, but it has family-friendly humor, great voice acting, and a classic story, all of which make it an entertaining summer flick for families. And, best of all, it sends a very positive and hopeful social message, one with an appropriate level of complexity for its intended audience.