On Cinema, Criticism, Common Sense, and the Good Message Fallacy

So. The Emoji Movie is upon us.

(If this is the first you’re hearing about this, then I’m sorry that I had to be the one to break the news to you.)

Perhaps thankfully for those of us who like to retain some faith in the general public, it started out with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning (essentially) that not a single viewer thought this film was good. 

The Huffington Post was kind enough to aggregate the critics’ pithiest insults into one meta-review, from which I’ll select a few choice sentences:

And yet, as I’m writing this, The Emoji Movie sits at a (slightly) less abysmal 6%. So, what happened?

As this CNN article speculates, it might have something to do with Common Sense Media, which ranked The Emoji Movie as a 3 out of 5, and as you might have guessed from the title, I have a lot of issues with such a usually trustworthy parental resource giving this movie a 60%. (For context, that puts it in the same ratings category for this age group as Ramona and BeezusMegamind, and the 2015 remake of Cinderella.)

If you ask me, I think this extremely questionable decision comes largely from their criteria. I quote from their review: “There’s a bit of flirting, and two emoji characters kiss; there are also scenes that take place in a dive bar, where drinking is implied (and there’s a beer emoji character). Language is fairly mild but includes a purposely cut-off “oh, s–t,” as well as insults like “loser,” “shut up,” and so on… The story emphasizes the importance of being true to yourself, as well as the value of honesty and teamwork.”

In summary: According to Common Sense Media, the film is decently good, because it doesn’t contain anything that’s too particularly bad. To borrow an overused simile, it’s like saying my latest batch of brownies doesn’t have much chocolate or sugar, but they don’t have dog poop in them either, so they’ll do.

The concept behind this sort of criticism is what I’d like to call the Good Message Fallacy: the idea that because a work of art communicates something morally right, or at least avoids communicating something morally wrong, it must be promoted and supported. (I’m not even going to address that practically every kid’s movie these days is about being yourself, so the Good Message here is more the Easy Message.) The reason I call this a fallacy is because it fails to recognize that the ultimate purpose of art is not to communicate a message.

The purpose of art is to reflect beauty, full stop.

Now, because I’m a Christian (and a bit of a Platonist), I believe that all beauty is in some sense communicative, since it guides the soul to a greater understanding of God, the source of all beauty. This, however, is different from having an explicit message. Compare Tangled and Ratatouille: Both are beautifully animated Disney movies, and I would consider both to be art, but Ratatouille has an explicit theme of pursuing your passion even when it seems like the whole world is against you, while Tangled (as far as I can tell) seeks more to tell a story about dreams and true love without having something to communicate beyond itself.

To clarify, I believe both are fine; there is nothing wrong with an artist having a message they want their audience to get from their work, and there is similarly nothing wrong with an artist seeking to create something beautiful merely for its own sake, letting the art sort of speak for itself. The problem comes when we start conflating beauty and communication: a good message in an ugly thing does not make that thing artistic or something worth supporting, and a bad message in a beautiful thing, while tragic, does not negate the beauty.

So, why bring this up at all? Personally, I think that we in the Christian community are especially guilty of this when it comes to our art, and especially our movies. That’s not to say that other groups haven’t done it (the controversies over the all-female Ghostbusters and the American remake of Ghost in the Shell come to mind, as does the word “problematic”), but we lately have just resigned ourselves to mediocre positivity in order to support Christian creators and messages in the terrifying cesspool that is Hollywood.

Now, plenty of people have discussed the mediocrity of Christian cinema (my personal favorites if you’d like to look into this more are this video and this article from the Babylon Bee), so I won’t go down that particular logical route. (Suffice it to say that I think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe provides a more accurate picture of Christianity than God’s Not Dead 2.) Instead, I’m going to argue that when we accept mediocre art, we make it profitable, and that hurts those who genuinely want to push the envelope. If all we buy are tickets to trite conversion stories, then what market is there for the fantasy film that features its own pantheon of gods but teaches that the greatest form of love is sacrificial? How can we touch on difficult and pertinent subjects if we’ll boycott a film when two men dance with each other?

Essentially, when we conflate art and its message, we force artists to prioritize theme over talent, when it should really be the other way around. As any student in an AP Literature class could tell you, it’s far easier to draw themes from a well-written story than it is to read a poorly-written one, even if the theme is obvious.

So next time you’re looking up whether or not you want to go see whatever Pureflix or Pixar has dreamed up for our viewing pleasure, please prioritize good art over a good message.

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