No Words, All Smiles: The Emoji Movie is a Mirror on Our Own World

Nicky Smith

“No Words, All Smiles: The Emoji Movie is a mirror on our own world” is the fifth publication as part of THESE ESSAYS, a series selected by editors-in-residence Suzanne Doogan and E. Saffronia Downing.

In the year since its release, The Emoji Movie has been completely forgotten, relegated to the Razzies and 7/11 bargain bins along with The Angry Birds Movie and failed sequels and reboots like The Mummy and Daddy’s Home 2. I haven’t seen it since it came out, although several moments still come to mind periodically, particularly one scene in front of a frozen fountain in Paris. Numerous allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault against T.J. Miller that came out earlier this year have only sunk The Emoji Movie deeper into our abyss of cultural detritus. But the integration of emojis into daily discourse and conversation has only increased, and their full compatibility with Unicode has ensured that they will continue to spread. In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary named “” as their “word of the year,” and I have no doubt that more emojis and glyphs will be awarded and given the same kind of acknowledgment as we move into the 2020’s.

This is not the end. The Emoji Movie is not a sign of how far we’ve strayed from God’s light. But it got trashed: it’s currently sitting at eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and the “Critics Consensus” simply reads “.” It’s not a well-constructed, well-written, or even engaging movie most of the time, but the extreme loathing of The Emoji Movie is not a reaction to these faults. People are disgusted and embarrassed by the concept; that it exists as a product in the world that we share. But the premise is endlessly fascinating and rich—the antipathy towards The Emoji Movie stems from the fact that it’s the opposite of an escapist summer blockbuster.

This is a movie about smartphones and apps and emojis: things that most of us use and interact with every day. Watching The Emoji Movie is an 86-minute look in the mirror for a civilian in the 21st-century capitalist West. Wonder Woman is escapism—The Emoji Movie is reality, and it’s overwhelming and often horrifying. No wonder people hate it so much.

So many of us complain about social media and compare it to be imprisoned or shackled somehow, and here too, the emojis are imprisoned in “Textopolis,” a Philip K. Dick nightmare city where everyone is assigned an emotion at birth and must never deviate or risk erasure (“Face With Tears of Joy” is shown being carted away on a stretcher with a broken leg; “Crying Face” must continue to be sad even after he’s won the lottery).

All working emojis report to a giant Cube, where they’re put into square slots and forced to wait hours, days, even years before they’re selected by the user, in this case a high schooler named Alex. T.J. Miller stars (unfortunately) as Gene, a “Meh” emoji who can’t contain himself from expressing a range of emotions, and when his big day at the Cube comes, he chokes, can’t stop cycling through different emojis, and when he’s “scanned,” the resulting emoji that shows up on Alex’s phone is grotesque and obnoxious. Of course it’s sent to Alex’s crush, and he’s embarrassed—the rest of the movie, we follow Gene, Hi-5 (James Corden—again, unfortunately), and Jailbreak (a princess disguised as a hacker) as they leave Textopolis and wander through the limbo between apps on Alex’s phone, peeking in on YouTube, Facebook, Dropbox, and Spotify along the way.

This movie poses so many philosophical and social questions that are mostly squandered by writers too old and uninterested in getting really heady. I mean, this is a kid’s movie, and it’s clearly modeled on Pixar’s wildly popular Inside Out. But The Emoji Movie isn’t about personifying and legitimizing teenage emotions—it explores the relativity of time, multiple parallel universes, and our own condition as smartphone and social media users. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, we see Gene’s parents, two “Meh” emojis, wander through limbo and end up in Instagram. They had an argument earlier, and Mom Meh walks into a photo of Alex and his parents standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. She walks in frozen time, eventually finding her husband, and they reconcile as they flip through Alex’s photo roll and kiss in a fountain, water suspended in the air. The little girl behind me said exactly what I was thinking: “That was beautiful.”

There are bizarre and offensive moments, like the “abandoned luggage” emoji being black for some reason (there are other black emojis and characters, but “abandoned luggage” sounds like Katt Williams, says “oh HELL naw,” etc.). Trying to make sense of the physics and universal laws of this world is pointless, but it’s not as glaring as something like Cars, where the cars race… but also sit in the stands? I don’t care that “Poop” somehow has a son and they both have to use the bathroom. Every scene is a road not taken: music is shown architecturally when Gene and Jailbreak enter Spotify, and they surf the sound waves of songs; the elderly of Textopolis are text-based emoticons that ride in wheelchairs and fall down and hurt themselves; the elite of Textopolis are just as petty and clueless as our own world leaders, and their insignificance when faced with complete annihilation (i.e. an appointment at an ersatz Genius Bar) mirrors our own helplessness and hopelessness staring down climate change in the years to come.

Members of Generation Z will outpace Millennials and enrage Baby Boomers as they begin communicating exclusively in emojis. We may know what “eggplant + peach” means now, but in ten years there will be phrases consisting of a dozen or more emojis strung together to communicate messages more complicated than sex jokes. Embrace it and enjoy your tech savviness while you can.

The histrionic responses to this movie even existing show how resistant people are to change and the evolution of language, and the perceived “dumbing down” of our culture. Oh, please! It is not a pox on our society — emojis are no different than slang, colloquialisms, or code within insular groups and communities. Most people refused to engage with The Emoji Movie at all, and in doing so they missed out on a surprisingly trenchant take on our widespread feeling of imprisonment and being shackled by smartphones. This isn’t product placement, it’s a satire smuggled in and out of multiplexes. Buy it for a quarter next time you go to get a hot dog or a Slurpee.


These Essays is a periodical mini-series of non-fiction writing curated for the promotion of joy and inquiry by E. Saffronia Downing and Suzanne Doogan. For the duration of the project, one essay will be posted each Sunday here on Post-Office Arts Journal. Writing is not restricted by theme, and ranges from pop culture criticism to personal essay and material analysis. For more information or to contribute an original piece, please contact theseessays@gmail.com.