It’s a shame that 2017’s The Emoji Movie exists—though, by all means, get that money, Patrick Stewart (in the role of “Poop”) and Maya Rudolph (“Smiler”). It’s just… that animated cash grab soiled a perfectly good title for a superior emoji treatise that would follow only two years later: the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival-selected documentary Picture Character.
You might (might) recognize this film today as The Emoji Story, as it was acquired by production company Utopia in December 2020 before having its name changed and finally becoming available on most VOD platforms. But this comprehensive look at the world of 1,182 unique emoji (and counting) first sneaked onto our radar during South by Southwest 2019. Emoji activist and dumpling emoji (🥟) creator Jennifer 8. Lee was presenting on the newly adopted “interracial couple” emoji (which she helped shepherd to reality alongside partners at Tinder) and mentioned she had produced an upcoming project. Lee’s panel essentially demystified the unseen emoji creation and approval process for a small Austin Convention Center conference room, and her film would set out to do the same for a much wider audience.
“It’s kind of a maze and takes a really long time—generally between 18-24 months—from when you have an idea and when it hits your iPhone,” Lee said during that SXSW panel. She would know. In addition to her successful dumpling campaign, Lee is one of the leaders of EmojiNation, a group that set out to diversify emoji after learning firsthand how limited the selection process can be. After all, the emoji that now run rampant on our smart devices and social media feeds all get approved by the tiniest, 12-person selection committee made up of older techie representatives from big corporations (Netflix, Google, Oracle, IBM, Apple, Facebook, Adobe, Microsoft, Shopify) alongside a few unexpected guests (German software company SAP; the Chinese telecom company Huawei; and the government of Oman). Each organization pays tens of thousands a year for the privilege of having someone voting yes or no on everything from “mate” (a customary Argentine drink) to “anglefish.” Lee eventually joined the Unicode sub-committee on emoji (a non-voting role open to anyone with a $75/year Unicode membership) to better learn the emoji vetting process and look through submissions.
“And seeing [the Unicode committee who approves everything], this totally sucks,” Lee recalled at SXSW 2019. “But they were excited to see me there because random people do not show up at this meeting. It felt like showing up at a new church with lots of older, friendly white people.”
All this is to say, you couldn’t ask for a more qualified team to put together a definitive emoji film. And The Emoji Story lives up to its pedigree and then some.
It’s a doc, but also an underdog story
Watch enough documentaries, and over time you can’t help but notice there’s a basic formula: cover the broad strokes of your topic’s history. Highlight its major annual events. Find a few present-day participants (ideally, compelling ones) to follow as they go through some journey, be it a professional process, a competition, or a change necessary to modernize in this rapidly evolving area. It’s a framework you can apply to anything, from people who regularly deal with nutria, to taxidermists.
The world of emoji includes all these components, but The Emoji Story doesn’t so rigidly silo these familiar documentarian puzzle pieces like many lesser films do. Instead, this film seamlessly weaves all this related-but-distinct information together, which leads to some nice filmmaking touches. At one moment, a linguist might be explaining the evolution of emoji chains as a way to communicate more specific ideas. But rather than stay with academics to build on some other esoteric aspect of emoji-dom, The Emoji Story follows that up with a film production card that communicates the next topic to you in an emoji chain. Small moments and sequences like this show that the team behind this film isn’t merely thinking about the topic; they’re thinking about how to engage an audience through film, too.
One of the film’s strengths in this regard is its selection of the “present-day participants to follow through some journey.” The film was in production around 2017-2018, and every year Unicode sees hundreds of proposals but limits approval to 60 new additions, max. The Emoji Story chronicles three such hopefuls: a teen hoping to see herself in group chats soon via a hijab emoji; two Argentine women who obsess over mate and want to (digitally) take it globally; and a British public health organization on a quest to create a period emoji.
From the start, this selection shows the vast array of possible concepts and creators submitting to Unicode annually. Anyone can submit a proposal so long as the idea simply meets a few basic criteria, like having clear popularity or multiple uses, while not being a specific public figure or brand and avoiding redundancy with an existing emoji. But as these individuals use their varying degrees of resources and prepare to travel to Palo Alto to make their final in-person pitches, you can’t help but feel as if they’re all underdogs, given the numbers game working against them. In this way, The Emoji Story solicits the same kind of propulsive emotional investment you get from a well-executed sports movie (whether that’s Major League or The Queen’s Gambit); it’s just teaching you something at the same time.
And to be clear, the overall topic is far more fascinating than many people think. The Emoji Story traces this modern language‘s unorthodox lineage, discusses both its unique strengths and limits, and explores what the future of emoji acceptance can and should be (a post-Unicode society may be coming, everyone). I personally looked through a dozen or so emoji proposals and long contemplated if I could come up with a concept worthy of submission after seeing Lee’s presentation in 2019, and The Emoji Story only revived this rainy-day dream. It will likely have the same effect on many viewers, so it’s nice that this film manages to both teach and entertain as it subconsciously (🧠) plants (🪴) the seeds (🌱) of inspiration (💡).
Listing image by The Emoji Story