Texting at the Movies: ‘The Emoji Movie’ brings thought icons to the big screen

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From the moment Sony Pictures Animation announced The Emoji Movie at CinemaCon 2016, there were many questions about what exactly that movie might be.

For our middle-aged readers who don’t have kids under twenty, an “emoji” is basically a visual language used primarily in text messages to convey thoughts and emotions in a simpler way than having to type out those annoying letters and words. (Emojis were derived from the simple text-based emoticons originally used to convey tone in the early days of the Internet.)

So how do you make a movie about them? That might not be quite as simple.

In the outside world, the comedy follows a teenager named Alex (Jake T. Austin), who like many teens spends much of his time on his smartphone texting with friends.  Inside his smartphone is a universe full of interconnected worlds—think of them as apps—one of them being Textopolis, where emojis line up, eagerly waiting to be picked by the user.

One of those emojis is Gene, voiced by T. J. Miller (“Silicon Valley”), whose main function is to share the bored expression of “Meh,” although Gene has many other emotions he hopes to express. That doesn’t bode well with Smiler (Maya Rudolph), his systems supervisor, who considers Gene to be a malfunction that should be deleted. Instead, Gene goes on the run, meeting with a couple of likeminded emojis wanting to make their own mark on their limited world.

Essentially, the movie is a mix of ideas reminiscent of popular animated films like Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out and even Zootopia, but revolving around far more familiar elements kids will know from the time they spend on their electronic devices.

For director Tony Leondis (Igor), the movie gave him a chance to explore a few themes he’d been wanting to express himself. After a presentation of footage from the film, he explained to Film Journal International how he came up with the kernel of an idea that eventually became The Emoji Movie.

“I was basically thinking what I was going to do next, and I thought, ‘What are the new toys? What is the new world that hasn’t been explored that kids can really relate to?’ I looked on my phone and saw an emoji and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. There’s these whole characters that exist.’ That is what you really want to find in animation—characters that people are familiar with but also, what’s the new world it will take you into?”

Leondis describes developing that idea into a journey that takes Gene and his outcast friends, High Five (voiced by James Corden) and a hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris), through other domains of Alex’s smartphone. “At first I was thinking maybe the emojis come out of the phone, then I started thinking that they all line up like they’re in the ‘Hollywood Squares’ and they’re all just waiting to be selected and what an honor it must be to be selected,” Leondis elaborates. “When you start looking at those emojis, they really are the same every time. The Smiler is always smiling and when you pick a Smiler, it better be a Smiler that you send. What would happen if someone was different? Then I thought that it would have every expression, and it kind of went from there.”

Part of the film’s charm comes from Miller’s portrayal of Gene, the comedian having gotten his start in the “animated space” with DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon, since Steven Spielberg and his wife were fans of his particular brand of standup humor. Miller went on to provide the voice of Fred in Disney’s Big Hero Six, but he still needed some convincing to take on a third animated movie.

Like the rest of us, he too was curious how they were going to make a movie based solely on emojis. “When they first asked me to come in to talk about it, I was interested to hear how they think they’re going to do this,” Miller admits. “Once [Tony] pitched it and talked about my character, I just thought it was so imaginative. I could tell that he was a kind, collaborative dude, very funny, and he’s very jovial. After seeing how inventive he was, I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’

“The other thing that was interesting to me was that I had never worked with Sony Animation, so I knew it was going to look different. I knew that the storyline was going to be different, and it wouldn’t feel like a Disney or a DreamWorks movie, which it doesn’t,” he adds.

“It doesn’t hurt that my voice is very specific and different thanks to marijuana, clove cigarettes and a lot of yelling on stage,” Miller says about his animation gigs. “Part of that is having that voice, but [also] being able to be funny in the G-rated space and inventive in the way you do comedy that has to be funny to parents and kids.

“Who knew an R-rated standup comedian from Denver, Colorado would become the voice of a generation?” Miller jokes about his participation in so many kids’ movies.

Although the film was co-written by Mike White and Eric Siegel, Miller says he sometimes relied on the animators to deliver some of his character’s biggest visual laughs. “When I saw it, not only is it funny, but the pacing is amazing. When you do a film like this and it’s not paced correctly, it’s really bad. The transition from the emoji world to the human world, all of those transitions are smooth, seamless, interesting, so it’s a lot more cinematic than I expected, and much funnier than I expected. Tony pays a lot of attention to something not all studios put a premium on, which is lighting. The way that he lights the films is as if he lit it in real world, and that gives it a different look.”

One of the appeals of The Emoji Movie is watching Gene, High Five and Jailbreak travel through different worlds, each based on popular smartphone apps. It may make some wonder how Leondis was able to get the rights to use some of them. “You go to them and say you’re doing a movie and give them the treatment and a synopsis, and they loved it. They were so excited to be a part of it,” the director says. “Everyone wanted to do it, and the best part was that we said, ‘We’re not doing a commercial for your apps—it has to be integrated into the character’s journey or we’re not going to do it,’ and they thought that was fantastic and what they wanted. It’s not a commercial for any of those apps. It was important if you’re doing a movie about a phone—I guess we could make up all the apps, but there are so many interesting apps already that it challenged us. What is Spotify? What would that be? I thought, ‘Oh, streaming music. They could be streams out of equalizers,’ so that’s how it all came about.”

Emojis themselves, meanwhile, apparently don’t have a copyright since they’re considered “fonts,” with different companies creating their own versions.

Part of the genius behind Leondis’ movie comes from casting the likes of mopey standup comic Steven Wright as Gene’s father; Leondis calls him the “king of deadpan.” “Easiest directing I’ve ever done. I didn’t have to direct him,” he confides. “It was such a pleasure working with him and he has such a generous spirit. It was a thrill.” Wright is paired with Jennifer Coolidge (Best in Show) as Gene’s mother.

Getting Anna Faris to voice Jailbreak involved Miller calling in a favor with his longtime friend.  “Anna actually came onboard later. The studio needed a different voice in that role and Tony called me and asked, ‘We’re thinking about Anna Faris, what do you think about that?’ I said I’d call her because we were in Yogi Bear 3D, which was the seminal movie of my career—everything else has been a downslope. I called her and she asked if she should do it, and I said, ‘Yeah, it’s not going to hurt you and you’ll be great in it.’ I realized suddenly that I was talking to her like a friend, as if she was asking about doing a different movie. By the end of the conversation, I was begging her: ‘Please do this. We can record together’—which we weren’t able to do—but we have very strong chemistry because we’re very good friends. We’re fascinated by the other person and have such adoration for each other that it really plays. You can kind of feel that we’re talking to each other in real life through these characters.”

Faris’ character Jailbreak also brings another dimension to the story, because she’s a female hacker working in a male-dominated world. “We’re really trying to tell an emotional story that deals with how women are put in boxes in this world, and at the end of the movie she literally breaks the glass ceiling.”

Leondis has also thought about how some of the other tangential characters from The Emoji Movie could star in their own films, particularly Patrick Stewart’s “Poop” emoji. “I’m sure people want Patrick Stewart’s Poop to have his own movie. I’m such a geek, and I’ve never been star-struck in my life, and I’m star-struck with that man.”

“It’s really nice for me to be able to do comedy in a film that is an allegory for Tony’s life growing up, feeling like he was different and nobody else was going through what he was going through,” Miller waxes philosophically on the film’s message. “Every single person has felt that, but kids especially, they eventually feel that, so I really liked the timely message of this one.”

Some might wonder if there’s a danger of a family movie having too many messages, but Leondis doesn’t think so. “I think the best movies have a lot of thematic elements. In this movie, it’s all about identity and being your true self, and they’re all connected by that theme—they each have their own expression of that.” Once The Emoji Movie opens on July 28, kids may never look at their smartphones the same way again.