That’s when I fully realized: Unlike Pixar’s sublime “Inside Out,” the formulaic but shimmery “Emoji Movie” isn’t necessarily aimed at including adults at all. It’s built to please the summer mind-set of grade-schoolers — and perhaps keep awake the parents who take them. (That approach has already paid off to a $125 million global take on a scant-for-animation $50 million budget.)
“The Emoji Movie” recently sparked some debate about the relevance of review-aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, but what the nearly 90-minute cartoon really represents is the continued ability of animation, superheroes and live-action adaptations of animated classics to reliably strike the Pavlovian pleasure centers of the movie masses — in a time when many American filmgoers especially crave escapism.
Consider the highest-grossing domestic-market films of the year so far. The top six films all fit within that happy-place Venn diagram of caped crusaders, cartoon characters and live-action takes on classic cartoon characters — and eight of the top 10 films do. The only exceptions are the high-octane escapism of “The Fate of the Furious” (at No. 7) and the breakout horror/social satire “Get Out” (No. 9).
(For the record, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” tops the list, followed by the summer superhero trifecta of “Wonder Woman,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2″ and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” then “Despicable Me 3″ and “Logan.” “The LEGO Batman Movie” — an animation/superhero twofer at No. 8 — and “The Boss Baby” round out the top 10, according to Box Office Mojo.)
Amid the continuing speculation about superhero fatigue, and the ongoing debate over review relevance, what the top of that list most reflects, it seems, is the audience’s willingness to reward appealing, oft-charming escapism in candy-colored form — with a huge advantage given to characters we’ve seen before on the big screen (that latter factor applies to each of the top eight films).
If all those elements are in play, then the films seem somewhat less reliant on high praise. None of the top six movies scored above an “80” average score on Metacritic.com, but all except “Despicable Me 3″ scored solidly above the “60” benchmark.
And “Despicable Me 3″ (average score: 49) points to the resilience of animated fare. Beyond that Illumination movie, “Boss Baby” (50), “LEGO Batman” (75), “Cars 3″ (59), “Captain Underpants” (69) and “Emoji” (12) all crack the top 30 films so far at the North American box office, despite the wide span of the critical reaction.
So judging by 2017 at this point, there is no reason for big studios to pull back on their menus of cartoons and spandex. In these divisive times, we come together for shiny-looking escapism delivered by familiar characters — and head to “Dunkirk” and “Detroit” only after our nerves have been soothed and sedated.