If you’ve ever sent 👉👌 or 💦🍒💦 to a crush, you know emoji often carry far more than their intended meanings. A ☺️ is still a ☺️, but a 😉? An 🍆? They contain multitudes of meaning. The beauty—and potential peril—of emoji lies in the fact they are so wildly open to interpretation. This idea is the heart of The Emoji Movie, except the film postulates that the opposite holds true.
“My name is Gene, and I’m supposed to be a meh,” T.J. Miller says at the start of the trailer. Miller, whom you know as Erlich Bachman in Silicon Valley, provides the voice for this unenthusiastic emoji avatar. (This unenthusiastic and nonexistent emoji avatar. There is, of course, no meh. Judging from his eyebrows, I’m guessing he’s closest to 😒, Unamused Face, #42 in Unicode 5.0.) “My problem is, I have more than one emotion.” Gene, you see, would like to smile, or stick out his tongue, or do any of the many other things a face can do, but the “world inside your phone” requires everyone to stay in character. Because Gene doesn’t want to stay in character, he doesn’t fit in.
Generally speaking, this riff on the “it’s OK to be yourself” plot is standard fare for a kids’ animated movie. But putting aside the fact that Sony simply made Inside Out/Wreck-it Ralph/etc. with a different class of avatars, the premise runs completely counter to what emoji are all about. Emoji always have the same look, but they rarely have the same meaning. Everyone sees them differently. Any movie exploring what the characters represent would have to delve much further into that question than The Emoji Movie does.
In the decade or so since they first appeared on smartphones (the specific timeframe depends upon where you live and what phones you’ve used), emoji have inspired waves of creativity. Their simplicity and limitations encouraged the tech-literate to find myriad ways of using them. This of course led to a rich world of emoji art, emoji fashion, and even a foundation dedicated to the cartoonish ideograms. You can read the emoji version of Moby Dick, catch up on Game of Thrones with emoji recaps, and, for awhile, anyway, enjoy an emoji verison of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” (Queen Bey, by the by, pretty much redefined the bee and lemon with Lemonade.)
The point is, emoji are constantly evolving. The joy and, occasionally, frustration of using them comes in knowing they will never have a concrete meaning. It’s all about context. Any movie that attempts to tell their story is antithetical to this basic fact.
If my Spidey sense about films—particularly animated life-affirming yarns like this one—is correct, Emoji Movie will celebrate the idea that these little dudes you know and love mean whatever you want them to mean, and they are not confined to the literal translation of their physical presentation or Unicode description. That’s lovely message of individuality and self-acceptance. So lovely, in fact, that emoji have been sending it all along.