If we take the critics’ word for it, The Emoji Movie was a bona fide flop. Garnering a rare 0 percent on Rotten Tomatoes from the top critics, the film was inspiration for vitriolic, venomous prose like “boldly boring” (The Village Voice) and “one giant ad for apps” (The New Republic). A discerning adult could not deny the shallow storyline, glorification of screen time, and brazen product placement. And yet, the film has grossed a respectable $216 million globally as of this writing, with more earnings expected from the recent digital release.
So why the disconnect?
While film reviewers make a career of analyzing and writing about the art form and the industry, they do not, as a rule, have a background in child development. They tend to review films based on artistic merit, without an accurate understanding of how kids may interpret and receive the film, which is the measure that most families use to decide whether to see it. The critics, by and large, missed the many ways makers of The Emoji Movie clearly hit the target with kids.
Here’s what The Emoji Movie did right, and why:
The cell phone setting. Mobile technology is aspirational for kids, making the setting already on point. Using a phone is considered a privilege and a grown-up one at that. Getting one’s own phone is a rite of passage for kids these days — one that is looked forward to and appreciated because it helps kids lean into their growing social identities while still getting to play and be creative.
Relatable themes. While arguably the storyline inThe Emoji Movie could have been more cohesive or original, the themes presented in the relationships and story conflicts hit home for most kids. Those elements include being there for friends, trying to prove yourself to your parents, concerns about fitting in with peers, and making mistakes diving into grown-up things before you’re ready.
Visual storytelling. Kids absorb information visually first, so a story that tells itself first in pictures packs a greater punch with them than those that rely solely on dialogue. This movie has the requisite number of physical action scenes and visual jokes, including menacing bots, a roller coaster, and spit takes. [Bonus: physical humor travels well too, which helps foster international success.]
Kid-known brands. While many adults question the appropriateness of product placement in kids’ content, if you look at the use of brand names purely from a kid POV, you see recognizable, cool companies, including YouTube, Candy Crush, Spotify, Just Dance, and Twitter. Kids would likely be excited to see these apps featured and be able to understand the jokes and plot points relating to them.
A happy ending. For little kids, who are just getting a sense of how the world works — what’s fair, what’s right and wrong — a sad or unjust ending can feel like a violation of everything they know and a blow to their confidence in learning what they should be aspiring to. As such, kids under age 10 tend to feel most satisfied when everything is tied up in a neat, positive bow at the end of a story, as it does in The Emoji Movie. While kids 10 and up (and parents, of course), may appreciate a more complex or cathartic ending, they don’t mind a happy ending either. Win-win.
The vibrant look. While cute, colorful animation is not differentiating in the kids’ space, it’s still very appealing to kids, especially younger ones. And The Emoji Movie has no shortage of neon colors and rounded edges.
Humor for parents. As expected in films directed at kids these days, the filmmakers throw in occasional jokes that are meant as a wink toward parents, without distracting from the kids’ storyline. Case in point: Sir Patrick Stewart plays the poop emoji.
But no Insight Kids blog post would be complete without advice for how the film could have better met the developmental needs of kids. Here’s where The Emoji Movie missed the mark:
Too much verbiage. Essential exposition elements are explained in long passages of voice over but never depicted visually. Some of these passages even include sophisticated tech-speak where kids won’t understand the vocabulary. This means that major plot points and sources of tension would likely be missed entirely by the majority of the kid audience.
Verbal puns. This film is full of them. Little kids won’t get them, and they are difficult to translate internationally.
Sophisticated tech references. Plot points relating to the cloud, hacking, or Dropbox will confuse kids, especially younger ones, who are still gaining digital fluency.
Overly sophisticated premise. The complexity of the plot is perhaps the biggest challenge of the film, from a child-development perspective. The main conflict of the story is around the idea that a face emoji needs to stay “meh,” meaning maintain a consistent blasé expression or risk destruction of his world as he knows it. But the film plays both sides, presenting emotions as both good (what the main character wants) and bad (leading to potential doom). On top of that, since kids are so literal, the visuals are downright perplexing — though you can’t see it on his face, Meh is freaking out! Unfortunately, what we’re left with regarding the stakes is confusion rather than emotional resonance.
The lesson here?
Understanding child development should be cost-of-entry for any kid-targeted content. What’s funny or relevant to adults may not work for kids and vice versa. Reviewers need to start understanding their young audiences before weighing in on whether a film is worth seeing. And creators need to keep kids at the center of any family movie strategy and understand that parents are doing the same. Ultimately, that’s what sells tickets and earns that thumbs up emoji from kids.