An Adventure Beyond Words: A Review of ‘The Emoji Movie’ Styled in the Five Stages of Grief

Originally published on August 6th, 2017

DENIAL, or Seeing the First Wave of Reviews

Look, I know that the Internet and Twitter-sphere have been off their collective rocker recently throwing every barrage of insults that could ever be mustered at Sony’s The Emoji Movie, but maybe, just maybe it isn’t as bad as people say. Hot takes have, quite frankly, become the burden of thoughtful criticism, and the interwebs is overrun with them. An obvious cash grab the movie may be, but any concept inspired by The Lego Movie’s unexpected success must come from a good place? And from what it sounds like, director Tony Leondis’s intentions were quite noble taking cues from Toy Story, a bona fide classic of animated cinema.

For a movie about emojis, the plot sounds as creative as it could possibly be, and just maybe there’ll be little bite-sized pieces of referential wit and cleverness peppered throughout its visuals – Sony Pictures Animation may not be the king of animated film subsidiaries, but they’ve been known to put out decent products before. And at the end of the day, it’s a movie for kids, so we have to remember to judge them on a different standard than we might Dunkirk. Honestly, how much time could the screenplay possibly spend making ‘classier’ poop emoji jokes?

The path to being a successful, respected critic is long and hard, and all titles must be given a fair shake. Even if the movie fails to achieve its goals, we could mark it up as a noble failure – the path to great artistry for the most beloved, established filmmakers is paved with noble failures, anyway. And this year, I’ve seen my fair share of major theatrical releases nose dive before they could even jump, but you know, if it comes down to having to see a potential disaster class, I’m sure I’ll be fine. It’s my duty. Reviewing movies is my passion. I’ll come out stronger on the other side.

ANGER, or Being Requested to Watch and Review This Fucking Garbage

Fuck The Emoji Movie. Fuck Sony Pictures Animation and Columbia Pictures for foisting this god-forsaken trash on perplexingly willing consumers. Fuck every parent and kid who buys into this nonsense. Fuck the studio executives who blame critics for giving their honest fucking opinions because the movie “wasn’t made for them.” Fuck the actors who took the paycheck knowing they were going to possibly help fat cat studio suits get away with murder. Fuck the producers for throwing money behind the fucking thing. Fuck Hollywood, as an intangible entity, for encouraging superficial, insipid, cynical productions that might not break even anyway. Fuck everyone and everything responsible for this monstrosity’s creation.

And you know what? Fuck being a critic. What’s it worth weeding through the shrubbery just to get to infrequent displays of hope when it’s movies like these that make the shrubbery thorny and intolerable? Suffering for the sake of a childish dream has quickly lost its luster, and I’m genuinely unsure of how I’ve made it this long without snapping. I’d much rather save my money for the movies that will actually be worth the ever-increasing price tag, even if they don’t live up to expectations, than write one more motherfucking word about dreck as infuriating as this.

And as far as I can see, I’m part of the problem. All I’ll end up doing is offering thoughts similar to thousands of other bloggers who want the same thing I do, as well as those who’ve made it in film journalism poetically waxing their way to the top without really being part of the solution to never-ending studio drivel, so whatever I write will just sink into the vacuous void of criticisms long forgotten. I need to get back to writing my own screenplays, developing ideas that challenge conventions and genre boundaries, as well as incorporate thematic and emotional depth that transcends each work to a higher level of relatability. Being smarter and more thoughtful with our creativity is how we properly combat the lifeless corporate Hollywood machine, not by tirelessly crafting another soulless tirade devoid of personality.

I still have a commitment to this current project of mine, so I’ll go see this fucking Emoji Movie, but I swear, I’m this close to wanting out and starting anew.

BARGAINING, or the Viewing Experience Up Until the Plot’s Midpoint

Okay… let’s take a breather. Fury is essential for cathartic reasons, but it has no place in professionalism, which must always be the goal. And though I haven’t seen many reasons to keep the faith so far, I promise I won’t be so hard on the film if it continues to give me little tastes of the smarter product it could have been; that bit about emoticons being the senior citizens of Textopolis was actually kind of clever. I promise I’ll take emotion out of the equation regardless of how the film ends up, because I want this too badly to resort to trivial outbursts unbecoming of my character.

To movies like Life, Valerian and A Quiet Passion, I can’t promise I’ll take back the mean things I’ve said about you all, but I can swear that I’ll remember you fondly for trying to do something, even if you came up short. Your efforts ought not be taken for granted, and we’ll always remember you fondly for that. All of my criticisms came from a good place, I assure you, and if I make it out of here with an unscathed conscience, you can count on me to never exceed the boundaries of journalistic integrity.

If I keep calm and make it to the end credits, I promise I’ll never have a moment’s doubt about this life path ever again. As much as some movies may tear away at my soul and sensibilities, there’s nothing I love more than writing about my experience and sharing it with you all. Maybe, just maybe the words I write will reach one person or one kid who also saw the film and encourage them to be the future change that this industry desperately needs. If my words can do that for just one person, I promise I’ll never lead myself astray. I’ll stay strong, keep my head up and keep marching on like I always have.

DEPRESSION, or When the Credits Rolled

Or, why bother pushing on at all? The comedy was uninspired and almost always fell flat. The characters were bland ghosts of kid’s movies’ past. The plot was both overbearingly simple and needlessly convoluted given the number of main and minor storylines forcibly squeezed into an hour and a half. As a whole, the story meanders far too frequently for any young child to keep track of what’s going on. Its message is an overdone one for family movies, and people are right when they call this film a derivative mashup of The Lego Movie, Inside Out and Wreck-It Ralph. Needless to say, there wasn’t a single clever bone in this film’s body.

And you know, I don’t think the irony is lost on Sony/Columbia Pictures that they made and distributed an animated kids flick about promoting individualism and pushing against traditional values of conformity, all while delivering a glorified, cliché-ridden advertisement for assuming brand culture into our daily lives – remember, children, Spotify will always be there to save the day. Not to mention, the irony that the film begins by playfully criticizing humanity’s attachment to technology, particularly our phones, and the devolved means in which we communicate with our fellow man, all just to eventually emphasize the importance of such advancements as necessary to fit in with the depressing, vaguely classist social hierarchy.

What’s the point anymore? For every Dunkirk, every Logan, every Baby Driver, there are two, maybe three The Emoji Movies. Do people honestly believe that drops in box office numbers across the board will encourage the industry to shift in the right direction? Even enjoyable artistic expressions like Dunkirk, Logan and Baby Driver are all part of the same system that puts out one mind-numbing torture session after another, so to everyone at the top, their financial and critical successes will be enough of an indication that the entire ship is still sailing smoothly.

There’s no incentive to change, and that’s not what I signed up for. What’s the point of criticism if there isn’t a hope that things will get better? I can’t just whip out a Meeseeks box and tell a Mr. Meeseeks to see the horrible movies for me. Before long, it’d probably be just as effective as Jerry Smith asking a Mr. Meeseeks to take two strokes off of his golf game. Someone tell me it’s still worth it, because the light in front of me is waning.

ACCEPTANCE, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Demand a Proper Response

But, it’s funny, you know, because The Emoji Movie doesn’t make being a film critic, albeit an unpaid one, any less worth it. You’d think movies that are equally as terrifyingly bad might tempt one to seek other vocational purposes in life, and you’d surprisingly be proven wrong. In fact, part of me is sort of glad that I occasionally have to sit through thoughtless farces of artistic creation, because it makes the good stuff that much sweeter. Now that I’m well removed from the viewing experience, I can honestly say that I’m fine with The Emoji Movie being a poor excuse for a children’s film. All studios release bad movies; such is an unavoidable truth about all releases, wide and limited.

What I’m not okay with, however, is how studios and studio executives lately have been blaming one particularly undeserving target for their defective output.

emoji-movie-2

It didn’t take very long for The Emoji Movie and its phenomenal failure to inspire a number of publications’ features articles, particularly in relation to Rotten Tomatoes and its exponentially almighty Tomatometer. In a recent piece by Pamela McClintock in The Hollywood Reporter, she explored how the review aggregator’s growing power has pressured studios to do whatever they can to delay reviews, and thereby a potentially damning Tomatometer score. Films premiering this summer that bombed with critics have equally underperformed with audiences, while those with positive scores, like Dunkirk, have surpassed box office expectations.

Josh Greenstein, Sony Pictures president of worldwide marketing and distribution, said that they delayed lifting The Emoji Movie’s review embargo until the last minute because they “wanted to give the movie its best chance,” but it won’t take much research to find advertising for Baby Driver, another Sony picture, that flaunted its then perfect 100% Tomatometer score. It’s acceptable to worry that a long-time audience resource is starting to affect your bottom line, but perhaps it’s best for studios to admit that they use the system to their benefit as much as they may claim it’s their enemy in other circumstances. And in the end, delaying embargo lifts or holding press screenings closer to the release date will only do so much in their favor, and this summer, its effects have been minimal at best.

Greenstein, however, has somehow managed a positive spin on The Emoji Movie’s abysmal rating. “What other wide release,” chimes Greenstein, “with a score under 8 percent has opened north of $20 million? I don’t think there is one.” It’s no doubt impressive, though it should be rather alarming that Greenstein, considering his position at a major company, is openly acknowledging the film’s perceived lack of quality shortly after its release, not denying it is a poor product, and yet brushing that fact aside because consumers have been buying it up, anyway.

Maybe it’s unintentional, but it certainly sounds like he’s insulting the consumers who bought into the film’s marketing campaign – to be fair, The Emoji Movie being a kid’s film might mean most of the purchasing adults, or rather, parents, didn’t have much say in whether or not to see it. But perhaps in the age of Peak TV and streaming service dominance, folks like Greenstein might want to watch what they say lest moviegoers turn against them and continue opting for a more convenient alternative.

The Hollywood landscape has greatly changed in the last decade. Rotten Tomatoes has played a significant part in that and it certainly isn’t going away anytime soon. If the film industry wants to remain competitive with a television bubble that’s yet to burst, it’ll need to employ some different strategies. To put it bluntly, ComScore marketing analyst Paul Dergarabedian says it best: “The best way for studios to combat the ‘Rotten Tomatoes Effect’ is to make better movies, plain and simple.”

Just how, and how widely that method is facilitated is a trickier question. Pieces about this recent backlash from studios against Rotten Tomatoes have included this quote, often ending on it, without offering any solutions of their own, which is admittedly understandable. How studios start making better movies requires a complex answer, one that I know I couldn’t offer on my own. Each project brings with it its own peculiar politics and egos on both the creative and business sides, and it might be harder to nudge folks in a certain direction if they have money invested in its success. But, as we’ve seen this summer, sometimes aiming for broader appeal can only get you so far.

Degarabedian is a little more optimistic than most, acknowledging that “The combination of social-media sentiment (positive or negative) and aggregate scores (low or high) is having a huge effect on adult centric movies and their box office prospects” – obviously, that excludes titles like The Emoji Movie, though films such as it may feel the effects in a different manner when family-oriented films with greater crossover between younger and older demographics, notably many Disney offerings, continue boasting greater returns.

Dergarabedian concludes by admitting “This may have a chilling effect going forward, but perhaps this will encourage the creation of higher quality content to avoid future negative reviews.” It’s certainly a dream worth hoping for, but as movie fans, we don’t need dreams. We need action. After all, we are kind of talking about wholesale industry reform. With that in mind, and because I, a person on the outside of the business looking in, can only offer so much other than telling moviegoers to stop spending money toward outwardly inferior options, why don’t we start taking a page from one notable industry vet, in particular: Ted Hope.

Last year, IndieWire published a piece about Hope, now working for Amazon Studios, and his suggestions for how to make the future of film brighter. In fact, he’s just as optimistic as Dergarabedian. I encourage you all to check out the article, so I’ll leave the greater details within, but what he’s talking about is studios, as well as filmmakers, taking greater care of their projects and confidently knowing why it and their commitment to film, in general, is important. We’ve seen that positive change come from distribution new boys like Amazon, Netflix and A24, among others, show a strong commitment to artistic quality; films that refuse to settle for mediocrity and, in many cases, have won that uphill battle in a critical and financial sense.

Who knows, maybe it is only a matter of time before the old gentlemen’s club finally caves in and realizes it has to adapt with the times. Curiously, this current predicament pitting studios against critics won’t lead us to that point. While I wait patiently for the day to come, hoping beyond all hope we never have to see anything like The Emoji Movie ever again, I’ll be right here. Plugging along as best I ever have.

1/5

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