I owe DreamWorks Animation an apology. Since February, I have been criticizing its upcoming movie Trolls. Between a strange visual style, a bland-looking synopsis and, worst of all, twerking trolls shouting “YOLO!”, I have not been looking forward to its release, and I still dread the day I have to review it. But I have been consistently framing it as a low point for mainstream American animation. Recently I’ve seen the error of my ways. Twerking trolls are not the worst the industry can offer.
Emojimovie: Express Yourself is the worst the industry can offer.
An emoji themed movie has been teased by Sony Pictures Animation for a little while now, and I paid little attention. When the image above was recently released to kick off their advertising campaign, though, the point drove home for me: this is real. This is an actual film being made. Top level executives green-lighted this production. After Aug. 11, 2017, we will live in a world where Emojimovie actually exists. Now, I don’t fear this movie just because it’s related to emojis. I fear it because of what we’ve seen so far with plot synopses and this early promotional material. According to CartoonBrew, the plot focuses on Gene, a “multi-expression emoji” because he was “born without a filter.” He’s joined by Hi-5 (to the right) and Jailbreak (to the left). But wait, you ask, who is that little guy sneaking in the corner? That character is named… Poop Daddy. I can hardly bring myself to say that name, and I apologize to Cornell University and this paper that it ever had to acknowledge a character named Poop Daddy. This already fatal blow aside, I have several reservations about this film.
Not even looking at the image, I want to focus on the title. Emojimovie: Express Yourself. Sony apparently decided that subtlety was overrated; Kristine Belson, president of Sony Animation, has explicitly stated that the movie is about “self expression”, for those who don’t bother to read the two extra words. Her full statement goes, “Over six billion emojis are texted every day, and emojis have become a universal language that transcends age and culture. The power of emojis is that they allow you to express yourself in a fast and very fun way, and that is what our movie is about.” First of all, I find it laughable that they’re trying to salvage the movie’s premise by talking up the use of emojis, making them sound like this grand social salvation. THEY ARE EMOJIS. They’re not going to end world hunger. We’re not going to get Daesh to lay down their arms by texting them little winky faces. If anything, ISIS is going to see Poop Daddy and hold it up as an example of how terrible our culture is. Secondly, the subtitle “Express Yourself” already insults our intelligence. They are so desperate for us to get the message, and have so little faith in our mental capacity to do so, that they need to give the moral of the film in the title. Imagine watching A Bug’s Life: Work Together, or Shrek: Beauty Comes In All Forms, or Coraline: Stranger Danger. I fully support a film having a moral or a message, but it has to organically grow out of the story. Going moral-first into a production leads to a weak plot, which makes the message feel forced and ultimately leads to its failure.
Now, let’s look past the title for a moment. After all, what’s in a name? Let’s play Sony’s game, let’s imagine a world of emojis… never an exercise I thought I’d try, but let’s do it. If they can actually establish a universe with clear rules, maybe they can pull this off. But right away, I’m confused by the main character, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are too. A “multi-expression” emoji? What does that even mean? I’m not well-connected to pop culture trends, and I don’t even have a smartphone, but I’m pretty sure multi-expression emojis are not a thing. The fact that Sony has to so blatantly break the idea of emojis to get at a plot worries me. For all the flak I give DreamWorks’ upcoming Trolls, they at least demonstrate they know what a troll is. An emoji-based plot may work better like this: let’s take Mr. Smiley, a happy face emoticon who lives his life in a smartphone with all his other friends. But one day he accidentally gets trapped in an email and sent to another person’s phone. There, he meets his doppelganger, and has an identity crisis as he realizes he is just one of many happy face emojis in the world. Yes, it’s a silly plot that took me all of a minute to conjure, but it at least it doesn’t break the concept of emoticons as we know them. If I can do it, surely professional screenwriters can do better! Instead we’re getting what’s described as an “app-venture”, which means that they’re going to be hopping around different real-world smartphone apps, which means rampant product placement. At least we know where the funding is coming from now!
I also want to touch on a controversy that I’ve heard distant rumblings on. Apparently, some people are upset by Jailbreak’s character design. On one level, it’s a blatant rip-off of Wyldstyle from The Lego Movie (and it’s pretty clear that Sony is trying to copy that film’s success). However, a number of people are crying foul that Jailbreak is the only emoji wearing clothes, while the male characters are not. I do have to admit that it disturbs me that she’s the only character who has an actual body. Gene and Hi-5 are simply their respective emojis with legs, but Jailbreak has a torso, a skirt, a beanie… it just smells rotten in my opinion. I’ll leave this issue to the more knowledgeable feminists, because I can’t articulate this issue too well myself. But I do believe something foul is afoot in this character design.
To end my column this week, I do want to leave on a positive note. On Oct. 13, we got the online release of Borrowed Time, a short directed by Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj. They are both animators for Pixar, and they push their skills to the limit in this production. The animation looks gorgeous, taking place in the American Southwest, and the visual storytelling is of course expertly executed. What makes Borrowed Time stand out to me, though, is how it grapples with a delicate and important topic. During the seven-minute long segment, a man returns to the scene of an accident that has haunted him all his life, and the short deals heavily in the themes of loss and suicide. Coats and Hamou-Lhadj handle the issue in a very poignant and heart-moving way which had me choking up. The two directors may be Pixar veterans, but Borrowed Time is definitely not for children. It’s haunting in the best possible way, and I consider it one of the best animated productions I’ve ever seen. Frames have been stuck in my mind all day. I hope that more animations dare to be as mature and heartfelt as Borrowed Time, and if you have time you can watch it right now on Vimeo. If you don’t have the time, make the time. After all, it’s free to watch.
So why pay 10 dollars to go see Poop Daddy in theaters?