Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan Rabin: The Emoji Movie



When I first discovered the existence of The Emoji Movie it struck me less as a singularly terrible idea for a movie than yet another sign that civilization was on the decline, and that it was only a matter of time until we devolve into animals too stupid and too superficial to survive. 

This isn't a "this looks terrible" movie. This is more on the order of, "I despair for the future of any society that could create something like this." 

Then again, I had the exact same response when I learned of The Lego Movie many years back and that that turned out to be one of the best and most inspired family movies of the past decade. As the oeuvre of Phillip Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street) proves, there is no idea or concept so hack, mercenary and terrible that the right people can’t turn it into something special and enduring. 

That said, the premise for The Emoji Movie is so hack, mercenary and terrible that there’s no way the movie itself could have been good. No, wait, scratch that. There was a way that The Emoji Movie could have been something other than an embarrassment to all involved, and that would have been if the filmmakers had gone the Sausage Party hard R route and created an eviscerating satire about the unrelenting emptiness of existence in the age of the smartphone zombie. 

Sadly, and weirdly, The Emoji Movie doesn't have as many poop jokes as its marketing would suggest. 

Sadly, and weirdly, The Emoji Movie doesn't have as many poop jokes as its marketing would suggest. 

The Emoji Movie might have been something other than worthless if it had embraced the idea that the digital space it chronicles so vacuously and admiringly is actually a soulless nightmare realm that brings out the worst in humanity, panders to our cheapest instincts and reduces us to drooling, attention-span-deficient automatons increasingly incapable of managing the world as it exists outside our precious, precious smartphones. 

As a connoisseur of crap, I’ve been tracking The Emoji Movie for a while. It seemed like my destiny to have to eventually watch and write about this dispiriting exercise in cynical commerce masquerading as kiddie entertainment so I embraced my doom and offered it, alongside the similarly reviled Norm of the North, as options for Control Nathan Rabin, the column where I give the living saints who pledge to this website’s Patreon page, a choice between two movies I must watch, then write about

I know a lot of other people share my morbid fascination with The Emoji Movie so I was not surprised when it trounced Norm of the North in the polls. Resigned to my fate, I watched a movie inspired by insipid digital whats-its that take already inane and meaningless cyber-conversations and messages and make them even more aggressively stupid and juvenile through non-verbal imagery. 

Lego Batman: now there is something to make a major motion picture about. The poop emoji? Come on. I am genuinely insulted by that, and I am a Juggalo. Nevertheless, somebody thought “The Lego Movie but with those dumb phone thingies everyone kind of hates” was worthy of a green-light so this tacky abomination exists. 

This is an actual image I pulled from Google. No photoshop involved. 

This is an actual image I pulled from Google. No photoshop involved. 

Yes, The Emoji Movie is so derivative of The Lego Movie (is you swap “Emoji” for “Lego” or vice versa, they  even have the same title) that I half expected it to begin with Regan & Tara & The Lovely Peninsula performing their infectious, upbeat anthem, “Things Are Quite Terrific.” 

Yes, everything is awesome in Textopolis, the world inside your phone where all the Apps and Emojis and other electronic nonsense live and work, just waiting for that blessed, blessed moment when their moron owner/user will see fit to use them to satisfy their momentary itch to see/hear Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5 on Youtube or play Candy Crush. 

Our narrator gushes in opening narration, “The world we live in: it’s so wondrous, so mysterious, even magical!” before specifying that he doesn’t mean our world but rather the world inside our phones, where each “app is its own little planet of perfect technology.” It’s prose so maudlin a young Jimmy Stewart would have a hard time pulling it off. 

So who did The Emoji Movie get to be the voice and spirit and soul of its protagonist, its answer to Tom Hanks in Toy Story and Christopher Pratt in The Lego Movie? That would be Yogi Bear 3-D cut-up and world-class asshole T.J Miller as Gene, a misfit emoji who is supposed to express only “Meh” but is so overflowing with genuine excitement and positivity and enthusiasm that he can’t help betraying all manner of emotions.

I'm posting too many images of the poop emoji but I had to look at shit for 78 minutes. You should have to look at it a little as well. 

I'm posting too many images of the poop emoji but I had to look at shit for 78 minutes. You should have to look at it a little as well. 

In the conformist world of Textopolis, where every Emoji expresses the emotion they’re supposed to express and nothing else, that makes Gene a misfit and a dreamer and an oddball and all the other pandering, cliched horse shit every fucking piece of shit kid’s film protagonist has been since the beginning of time. 

T.J Miller is a drunken, obnoxious, pot-smoking, belligerent, profane, disgusting, self-destructive, deeply problematic piece of shit. I write that as a fan. That’s his whole shtick: he’s a funny, talented asshole but holy fucking shit is he an asshole. If he wasn’t so talented he wouldn’t be able to get away with being such a dick. Miller’s recent departure from Silicon Valley proves that there is a limit to how much shit people are willing to put up with from him, but he’s gotten this far by virtue of being talented, not agreeable.  That’s his whole persona: the bully that’s incredibly obnoxious but clever enough to get away with it. 

That’s why it’s perverse to cast Miller as a character whose defining characteristic is that he’s so overflowing with sincere, genuine and excitement for everything going on around him that he can’t help but betray his sour-puss digital blood line and be crazy expressive. The Emoji Movie asks Miller to be a whole bunch of things that he patently just is not. It asks him to be nice. It asks him to be sincere. It asks him to be someone audiences will like and identify with. He’s a belligerent belch of rancid bong water we’re supposed to see as a ray of sunshine. 

In one of many developments that will make you sit up in your seat and angrily proclaim, “Who fucking cares?” Gene is called up to register his world-weary expression in a text to a girl but he panics and screws up and is labeled a “Malfunction” and sentence for “deletion” by Smiler, a Smiley face emoticon whose perpetual expression of creepily exaggerated happiness belies a core of pure evil. 


In a voice performance at once genuinely impressive and fascinatingly misguided, old pro Maya Rudolph makes Smiler fucking terrifying. She doesn’t just want to enforce a vaguely fascist social order: she wants to fucking destroy anybody and anything that contradicts her sociopathic perfectionism. 

I was so scared of Smiler I was convinced that she was going to escape the world of the film and murder me and my family. I am not proud to admit this, dear reader, but I was so scared of Smiler that I wet myself in terror. More than once. The filmmakers have egregiously mis-calibrated the scariness level of its villain. We have a Judge Doom-level scary villain, not a villain appropriate for a literally shitty, pandering kid’s film. 

When I say literally shitty, that’s because Sir Patrick Stewart voices the Poop emoji. Yes, I just wrote the words “Sir Patrick Stewart voices the poop emoji.” I know we live in a sick and sad and corrupt and insane and often soul-crushingly awful world and that it can be easy to get jaded, to become dead to the insults of the contemporary Sodom & Gomorrah we call the United States, so I just want to make crystal clear, once again, that in The Emoji Movie, beloved actor and icon Patrick Stewart voices the poop emoji. 


And you know what? I ain’t mad at Picard. Get that money, playa. It’s almost as if Stewart is testing the audience’s affection. How beloved is Patrick Stewart? He’s so adored that he can literally be shit in a movie that pretty much everyone agrees is total shit, and nobody is going to hold it against him. I can’t see this being a Norbit type situation, where he’s being considered for Best Supporting actor for Logan (I’d vote for him) but the looming specter of the poop emoji kept Stewart from nailing either a nomination or win. 

Thankfully, the poop emoji is barely in The Emoji Movie, which centers on Gene’s quest to find a hacker to help fix him. Along the way our hero joins forces with Hi-5 (James Corden) a once popular emoji who has fallen out of favor and a princess emoji who has taken on a new identity as a hacker voiced by Anna Faris. 

The Emoji Movie doesn’t just steal relentlessly from The Lego Movie. It’s equally derivative of Wreck It Ralph and Toy Story, only instead of a universe constructed from old video game characters or popular children’s toys, The Emoji Movie inhabits a world stitched together from real-life annoyances/wastes of time like Candy Crush and Just Dance, which our emoji heroes interact with in their journey to find the Cloud, and with it, freedom. 

This seems high. As does T.J Miller. That dude is #BAKED. On marijuana!

This seems high. As does T.J Miller. That dude is #BAKED. On marijuana!

The Emoji Movie aspires to be an iPhone version of the holy trinity—Toy Story, Wreck It Ralph and The Lego Movie—but instead it reminded me of Foodfight! but without the personality. Foodfight! at least had the courage of its misplaced convictions. It was terrible in a way I’d never seen before whereas The Emoji Movie is just The Lego Movie with the soul, wit, heart, humor and likability all digitally removed. 

This isn’t a movie. This is marketing. This is product. This is smartphone propaganda that wants desperately to believe that emojis are fun and healthy and help people communicate better, and not just a particularly obnoxious and disliked component of the white noise that constitutes contemporary American society. 

Speaking of White Noise, I would love a version of The Emoji Movie written by Don DeLillo and directed by David Cronenberg. That would properly convey the unrelenting emptiness and free-floating despair of cyber-life, not this nonsense with a lead character who looks like an off-brand Pac-Man. 

The Emoji Movie’s climax finds Gene’s world threatened when the phone’s user Alex goes to the store to get it wiped because it’s been acting up. Everything will be lost unless Gene can rise to the occasion and send Alex’s crush an emoji guaranteed to get her attention and win her heart. So Gene delivers one of his multi-expression specials and the girl is so blown away by the moronic emoji she received from the phone-addicted doofus in love with her that she utters a series of words that had never been uttered before and would never be uttered again: “That’s one super-cool emoji.”


This young woman reads an awful lot into one stupid fucking emoji, gushing of the unusually animated and expressive emoji he sent her, “I like that you’re one of those guys who can express her feelings.” 

Is that how fucking repressed men have become in 2017? That using a fucking emoji is interpreted as sensitivity and emotional intelligence? Have we really set the bar that fucking low? We’re really comfortable accepting an emoji in lieu of emotions because it’s better than nothing? 

In what universe do women admire men with the sensitivity, honesty and heroic vulnerability to convey their emotions through emoji? 


It’s almost as if the filmmakers really didn’t think things out too clearly. Besides, you’re kind of tempting fate when you make a movie like this with characters named Meh and Poop. The Emoji Movie never even rises to the level of “Meh.” It’s painfully, hopelessly sub-Meh. It wishes it was Meh. No, there’s only one word to describe The Emoji Movie: sub-par. Also, shitty. 

Want more commentary about the fucking Emoji Movie? Of course you do. Don't lie to yourself, or to us. Clint Worthington and I will be discussing this and other movies and phenomenon on the next episode of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast, which will "drop" Tuesday, November 21st.

Listen to the first episode of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast on iTunes here!

Join the community at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, vote in Control Nathan Rabin polls like the one that led to this article and get patron-exclusive bonuses like one patron-exclusive Control Nathan Rabin entry a month over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace