The news that Sony paid “near seven figures” in a bidding war for an Emoji movie was not warmly received. And I know this because I’ve skimmed through 40-odd “Emoji Movie In The Works” news pieces, and so far precisely two outlets have regarded it with genuine excitement.
Glamour posits that Emojis have “become part of our emotional vocabulary” and they deserve the best adaptation Hollywood can give them. Bustle lends them even more weight: “Emoji are sensational, and this movie is an homage to a powerful little set of glyphs that capture the human experience, are changing the nature of communication and are SUPER cute.” Is that a little lofty for a bunch smiley of faces? Probably.
Everyone else? They’re decrying Emoji: The Movie (or whatever the title ends up being) as the death of cinema itself. You know the drill- hollow cash grab, zero creativity, ugly pandering to the iPhone generation. Maybe throw in a few angry yellow faces (or the little smiling shitpile) as an ironic “case closed.”
I feel I must defend the Emoji movie. I’m not sure why; it’s not like I have any real attachment to the things (you’d never catch me in a passionate rant about how Emojis “capture the human experience”). The only one I use on a regular basis is the fart cloud from the iPhone’s Emoji library, usually trailing behind the butt of an animal Emoji (should I be admitting that?). Maybe it’s the solid wall of backlash that’s got me sympathetic. Maybe it’s just the fart cloud. Either way: there’s no reason an Emoji movie has to suck. And there’s no reason to herald its impending suckage like the coming of the Antichrist.
The obvious reason why is the “LEGO Movie Defense.” No one expected The LEGO Movie to be anything but a two-hour toy commercial, and it startled the world by being vibrant and clever and syncing with every single audience member’s childhood LEGO memories. So if it happened with one brightly-colored, kid-friendly symbol, it could happen again, right?
But there’s more to this than just saying “Well, if The LEGO Movie could be good,” and trailing off with an ellipsis. The LEGO Movie was good- but not because of anything to do with LEGOs. It’s 100% about the filmmakers. Do they love LEGOs? Do they understand the heart of why everyone else does? Can they build a compelling story around that heart? In the case of The LEGO Movie, the answer was “yes.” So Emojis just need their own Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
Here’s another, more recent example: Minecraft, also with its own movie adaptation in the works. Up until December, Shawn Levy was attached to direct. And up until this week, I’ve had zero interest in the project. I’ve never played the game. And no offense to Levy, but his filmography (including all three Night at the Museums, The Internship and the first Steve Martin Pink Panther), didn’t inspire much confidence. When he left the project in December? No great shakes.
This week Rob McElhenny, the creator/writer/director/Mac of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was tapped to direct Minecraft. Boom. Instant enthusiasm. I’ve skyrocketed from flat zero to a “will probably see it.” And not because I’m a Sunny fan (although it does help)- it’s because the news arrived alongside a pic of McElhenney swinging a big foam sword at Minecon, the annual Minecraft convention.
Back to Levy: I can’t say for sure if he was a Minecraft fan before taking on the movie, but it sure didn’t sound like it. In two minutes of “Why I Left Minecraft” talk with the Wall Street Journal, Levy let slip two major details:
1. Warner Bros came to him with the idea; he didn’t come to them.
2. Levy pitched his Minecraft concept- an adventure movie with “a bit of a Goonies flare”- to Mojang, but the game developer vetoed it, saying it didn’t fit their vision of a Minecraft movie. Levy had plenty of other irons in the fire, so he moved on.
Now back to McElhenney, who has a history of working his ass off on passion projects (he won the green light for Sunny and his upcoming first feature, Figment, through fervid pitches and lots of homemade test footage). And who was announced as Minecraft’s director not in a Deadline scoop (as Levy was), but from Mojang themselves, with the words “We’ve chosen a director for the Minecraft movie.” Emphasis on “We,” and not “WB.” He’s also the kind of Minecraft fan that goes to cons and swings around a foam sword like a giant goober.
— Lydia (@LydiaWinters) July 21, 2015
That’s the guy that should be directing Minecraft, because it takes someone with genuine love for a game/toy/app/whatever to suss out the heart of why other people love it, and develop a film around that heart. The way Lord and Miller did for LEGO sets.
Somewhere out there, Emoji have their equivalent Lord/Miller or McElhenney. Hopefully it’s Anthony Leondis, who’s set to direct and co-write the Emoji movie. His past work isn’t so inspiring – throwaway animated movies like Igor and the direct-to-DVD Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch. But he felt strongly enough about Emoji to dream up his own concept, storyboard the entire film in advance, and then pitch it. And his pitch was solid enough to spur Sony, WB and Paramount into a bidding war that ended near the million-dollar mark. These are positive things.
It took a ton of effort not to pre-hate the Emoji movie like everyone else. But now? Call me cautiously optimistic. If the fart cloud’s in there, I might even buy a ticket.