‘The Emoji Movie’ Star T.J. Miller Explains Why the Movie Isn’t What You’re Expecting

“They’re making a movie about emojis? How is that going to work?”

If you thought that when first hearing about Sony’s The Emoji Movie, you’re not alone. The film’s star, TJ Miller, wondered the same thing when he was first approached to lend his voice to its lead character. But after chatting with the minds behind the animated movie, including director Tony Leondis and producer Michelle Raimo Kouyate (Silver Linings Playbook, Hotel Transylvania), Miller realized there was a lot more to this idea than you might think. And after Fandango spoke to Miller about the movie, we can totally understand why he jumped on board.

The basic gist of the movie is this:

There’s a world called Textopolis inside your phone. It’s a city filled with emojis, all of whom are supposed to deliver their one expression whenever called upon. Miller’s character, Gene, is a ‘meh’ emoji, but Gene doesn’t just have one expression, he has multiple. He sets out on an adventure with two other emojis, Hi-5 (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris) to figure out what’s wrong with him, and in doing so the trio inadvertently discover something that threatens to delete everything and everyone in Textopolis.

When we chatted with Miller he’d coincidentally just finished watching The Emoji Movie for the first time, and even he seemed caught off guard by it, eagerly relaying how complex, emotional, and timely it was. Between this new trailer (above) and Miller’s thoughts on the project, we have a strong suspicion The Emoji Movie may be the next The Lego Movie: a surprisingly smart, slick piece of entertainment whose strong themes will resonate with kids and adults alike.

On Sharing That Initial Skepticismand What Got Him Over It

“I’m in a lot of animated features, but this is the first one where I’m the star, kind of. And so, I was like, ‘I don’t know if The Emoji Movie is what I want to be my first starring animated feature.’ So, I went in to meet with them because my agent was like, ‘Look, I’ve heard the way it is and it’s really cool and these people are great.’ So, I met with them.

“The trailer only gives you a small window into it, but I was blown away by their presentation of this whole world of Textopolis inside your phone. It was very, very clever. I saw what the look of the movie was going to be, and so then I was in.”

On Why It’s Not Your Average Kids Movie

“In this movie, they talk about death. They talk about being deleted. One of the things I like about this movie – and I knew it would be this way from meeting them, but now having seen the movie I didn’t realize just how much it would be – it is a lot about expressing yourself and not hiding who you are, and talking to people instead of just texting them. That kind of stuff. But it’s also very much about – and I’m not going to ruin it for you – but it’s about women not needing to be just one thing, like a bride or a princess or a dancing flamenco girl.

“It’s about friendship, which I think is always important to teach kids about loyalty and friendship. And strangely it’s about family. It’s a good message for kids in general. All of these are helping develop a moral compass in children that we think is a progressive mindset, to be kind to everybody, to not hide yourself. “

On the Crazy Worlds Inside The Phone

“They have this dance app thing that I was like ‘Eh, what’s this going to look like? It’ll probably be one of the lamer worlds they’re in.’ But it f***ing blew me away.

“It’s so cool. The look of it – because they exist in technology it looks different – I was wondering if this would be too much like Inside Out, where we’re just seeing a computer in a phone instead of the human mind, but it’s not. The way they treated the digital world is nothing like the world Pixar created. It’s very, very different. So, in the dance app, they’re dancing on these squares that fall away, which means you get deleted and die unless you complete the dance moves. And the person leading you is this giant, 50-foot character.”

On Why the Movie Scared His Wife

“I was also really surprised by the villains, which is Smiler and her kind of A/V bots that are supposed to delete malfunctions and malware and all that stuff. Kate watched it with me and goes, ‘Those are scary!’ It’s a good sign, when your 35-year-old wife is like, ‘Those are scary!’

“I really like when children’s movies are scary. I think they should be scary. Big Hero 6, there’s really scary stuff in there. How to Train Your Dragon can be pretty gripping at times, the second one can be very dark and heavy. I think children should be scared of the villain. They should cower. When you’re watching a movie as a child you should feel more, because you haven’t seen as many movies and you don’t know the formulas as much.”

On It Being More Than Just a Kids Movie

“I work on movies and things where if there’s anything I can add that’s funny and gets people laughing to try and make it through this strange, tragic endeavor we call life, it is really worthwhile.

“It’s one where as a parent you can sit back and go, ‘My kid f***ing loves it and this is funny and it’s not a painful experience because they clearly put in jokes just for adults.’ Sony really did it. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s the right movie for right now. “

The Emoji Movie hits theaters on July 28, 2017.