Director: Kelly Asbury
Writer: Alison Peck
Starring: Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monáe, Nick Jonas, Blake Shelton, Wang Leehom, Pitbull, Wanda Sykes, Gabriel Iglesias, Emma Roberts, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, Lizzo
Genre: Musical, Comedy
Animated filmmaking just ain’t what it used to be, is it? Once upon a time (like in the last decade or so), the next Disney or Pixar movie was a lynchpin event in the year to look forward to. I remember well what a joy it was when films like How to Train You Dragon 2, Frozen, and Inside Out were announced. Now, thanks in part to the overriding ubiquity of Marvel and Star Wars as the go-to standard for family entertainment, much of the old guard for feature film animation has gone to less qualified hands time and again. Yes, Laika is still trucking on despite seldom, if ever, releasing a blockbuster title. Yes, last year graced us with the works of mad geniuses such as Isle of Dogs and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Yes, with Endgame now released, the idea that much of what drew audiences’ attention away from anything that didn’t have a Stan Lee cameo in it will now be severely reduced in potency is not at all unpopular. With all that established, I can’t help but feel remorse over the fact the primary means of imbibing animated fare in our moviegoing now almost exclusively consists of overused and misused CGI in live action productions. Imagine if the only kind of animation anyone was allowed to see anymore was Space Jam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here. Color me desperate, but I’ll take anything that even remotely looks like something Pixar might have done in its golden years at this point, no matter how unassuming and rushed it might seem. I sat through Wonder Park, for crying out loud. Throw me a bone here.
Violence/Scary Images: A notch more intense than parents might expect: multiple scenes in which characters fall or are thrown from great heights and fall down dark, scary holes. UglyDolls are frequently threatened with being “recycled”; in one harrowing scene, they’re thrown into recycling chute, almost shredded by sharp metal teeth of loud, red, glowing monster machine. Dolls battle in hand-to-hand combat. Dolls go up against potentially scary robot dog (which grabs one, carries him away, possibly to his doom), a big vacuum (which sucks one doll up), and a looming robot baby. Many characters are kidnapped and transported in big sacks through threatening tunnel.
Language/Crude Humor: Hurtful phrases like “you shouldn’t even exist”.
Sexual Content: Ugly Dog is interested in female dolls and says things like “Feel the energy between us?” At one point, he whips out a table and some sparkling wine and invites a female doll to join him.
Drug/Alcohol Use: At one point, a male character whips out a bottle of sparkling wine as a romantic gesture to a female character.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Superficiality
Messages somewhat mixed. Intended messages are that conventional beauty doesn’t equal goodness, that an unconventional appearance doesn’t equal worthlessness, that our differences are actually what make us unique and special. But often key characters say the exact opposite, so positive messages end up weakened. Still, movie joyfully proclaims “Let our freak flags fly!” and says that love and compassion are a doll’s true purpose. Group of friends shows teamwork, perseverance in pursuing and fulfilling a goal.
Moxy is a lovable character who, after learning experiences, comes to fully accept herself — and to launch toward her dream (which she ultimately achieves). Mandy, a complex character, starts out as something of a villain but soon reveals herself as sympathetic to main characters’ aims; she makes an important emotional shift. A group of friends is supportive of each other. A few female “perfect dolls” are stereotyped as “mean girls,” do most of the dirty work; they talk about hairstyles, lip gloss instead of anything deeper. Bad guy Lou is hyperfocused on perfection, has no tolerance for anyone who doesn’t meet his rigorous standards.
It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Whoever said that must have never heard of parody or its higher-minded sister satire. It seems like something that one who was trying to be exonerated of plagiarism would say after being caught in the act. Flattery, whatever the context, tends to come at a price – namely whatever value may come of a work with its own identity.
Now, in many ways, imitation is something impossible to avoid. Human beings are imitators by nature, and so everything we do is in one way or another a remix, alteration, or renovation of what came before. As the Anglican priest William Ralph Inge famously stated: “Originality is just undetected plagiarism.”
How exactly does one go about avoiding such a seemingly inescapable bind? The creative types, those who make a career out of remixing and renovating what came before, have developed an axiom to explain this seeming contradiction: “If you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism. If you steal from several people, it’s research.” Simple copying doesn’t take nearly as much personal agency as compiling and remixing into a unique whole, and there is where the creative spirit lies. I’ve never heard an elevator pitch that didn’t give reference to another work.
With that said, there had better be more than just one work attached to the pitch without the needle moving further away from the “research” point and in the opposite direction. The parallels can only be drawn so long before it starts to seems as though no new line is being drawn at all. And largely, that’s how it seems to be with UglyDolls—an animated attempt at making a few previous lightning bolts strike again.
Much of what’s being dished out here can be described with a number of sentences all beginning with “It’s like Toy Story in that…but…”
It’s like Toy Story in that it’s centrally about the “secret life of toys,” but our protagonists are so detached from the human world that many characters think them a myth.
It’s like Toy Story in that certain characters haphazardly trek cross a dangerous environment in search of an owner and come to terms with their identities along the way, but there was no accident to instigate the journey.
It’s like Toy Story in that I can’t talk about particular parts of it without spoilers for both this movie and Toy Story 3, but what were they even thinking with that scene?
It’s like Toy Story in that famous and talented actors are chosen to play important roles, but they’re chosen more for their singing rather than acting talent. Yes, dear reader, this one’s a musical. Thinking on the matter, UglyDolls does seem to impressively rob from all the worst or least important parts of the big three animation houses of the 90s and 2000s.
The characters here are charming and easily marketable (obviously), and have a number of big name celebrities behind them primarily more for star power than for acting skills. Shrek and our friends at DreamWorks say “hi.” The film also makes several seemingly desperate attempts at humor, most of which simply do not land – another staple of DreamWorks’ career.
As for the plot? Well, aside from the commonalities already mentioned, the plot operates entirely on the surface. By contrast, even outside the Toy Story trilogy, Pixar films are designed to operate on several levels for several people. Finding Nemo can resonate as a breathtaking homage to the majesty to the ocean, a deeply moving father-son adventure drama, and as an effective pro-life tale for those born disabled. Inside Out works as a feature-length animated seminar on basic behavioral psychology, a quietly brilliant family drama, and a reason to see the internal struggles of adolescence in a new light. The Incredibles is an example of first-rate family filmmaking, one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and a subtle reminder that if I’m not careful, I’ll just be singing Pixar’s praises for the rest of this review.
UglyDolls makes a few earnest attempts at going in its own direction and even addressing weighty subject matter. The story begins in a toy production factory were certain dolls who don’t quite literally fit the mold are shoveled off to the town of Uglyville, where they live in a remarkable level of peace and contentment, despite being rejects and living in a town of constructed refuse. Of course, drama needs to kick into place somewhere to get this story going. Such unsettlement to the status quo comes courtesy of Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a pinkish bundle of unquenchable optimism who daily expects to finally be given to the child she’s destined to meet. She believes out there in the fabled “Big World,” there’s “a child for every doll, and a doll for every child.” Her arrangement in Uglyville is splendid where everyone denies there even is a world of people beyond the wall, but she knows there must be so much more than this provincial life. Cue the music.
Moxy is vindicated in her hope fairly quickly, and by somewhat obvious means. Frequently, new denizens of Uglyville arrive through a chute jutting out of the face of the border wall. Moxy figures any door once opened can be entered through in either direction, so if the chute leads here, it must also originate from somewhere else. For wholly contrived reasons, Moxy makes off on her grand venture beyond the border with a motley crew of catty and wisecracking compadres, each equipped with a singular range of acting out to keep the kids in the audience quiet while the story paddles along.
Wanda Sykes’ Wage the baker spends every sentence of her performance wishing she had stayed home without ever giving a reason as to why she didn’t. The chilled canine doll Ugly Dog (Pitbull) seems to be along for the ride just to feel included. Gabriel Iglesias finds his great talents wasted here on a gentle giant named Babo who hardly speaks a word. At least DreamWorks usually found a worthwhile character for their celebrity features to embody.
Once on the other side of the tunnel, the dolls find themselves in the pristine and elite arena of the Institute of Perfection, where dolls are trained and run through a gauntlet of challenges to be deemed worthy of being loved by a child. The whole set is run by one fanatically narcissistic doll named Lou (Nick Jonas) who, in traditional Disney fashion, gets arguably the most memorable and impactful musical number that shows just how good it is to be him, how bad it is to be anyone else. The Uglys are immediately regarded as personae non gratae in this hollow bastion of manufactured flawlessness, but are still determined to prove their worth. Lou chooses to humor their ambition, and thus the story properly begins.
The idea that all are deserving of love despite their faults and imperfections is a very worthwhile thematic direction for a family film to take, but it’s not treated here with the same depth and sophistication as it would be treated by the other studio who shall from this point in the review onward remain unnamed. Should it need to be referenced, it shall only be addressed by the brand name of a popular cold breakfast cereal. How well does this thematic direction carry out? It’s a shaky affair, to put it kindly.
When I first saw the trailers and teasers for UglyDolls, I mistook the “perfect” dolls for actual human schoolchildren, which would have made for a VERY different movie. Once the confusion around that was cleared, I can’t say I was ever bored or disenchanted with what was going on. UglyDolls is by no stretch a “bad” movie. Just not a very good one. Nearly everything here works where it needs to, but that’s about all it does. There’s a running subplot with an effecting side character played by Janelle Monáe for whom the Uglys serve as a clarion call for honesty and breaking from the statutes of thoughtcrime. A bit I found amusing is how dolls that fail to remain unsullied by blotches, smudges, and stains face the terrible punishment of being run through the washing machine.
I was eagerly hoping for the writers to delve into the irony of how the “perfect” dolls are remarkably dull in how uniformed they are compared to how gloriously variant and colorful the Uglys tend to be. A climatic third act reveals such food for thought, but leaves it mostly untouched in the buffet hall. It’s a sad oversight, considering the Uglys are not really all that unappealing, just a bit odd in an intentionally cute way. They’re “Hollywood Ugly,” not “ugly-ugly.”
The biggest faults found here are in the structure of the story. How exactly does this world of dolls and fluff relate to the “Big World” of legend? Is this an alternate dimension of some sort? A parallel universe as it were? An ending sequence has something of a science fiction explanation for that plothole with an explicit allusion to another Frosted Flakes release, Monsters Inc. Honestly, it just doesn’t cut it. Like at all. No, cut the music this time.
The biggest positive surprise for me was what was arguably the strongest moment in the film was the end, at least emotionally. Yes, it was basically the final stroke unambiguously identifying this whole escapade as a really long commercial, but it hits where it counts without overstaying its welcome. The whole matter got me thinking on other examples of cinematic adaptations (if that is the word) for merchandise brands. That eventually carried my thoughts to the Canadian animated TV series Ruby Gloom, and that made me sad. Please, someone continue Ruby Gloom…
Look, animated feature films have been in quite a state for some time now. Many have ascribed blame for the death of hand-drawn animation to Capt. Crunch’s first release with the aforementioned Toy Story. Many others more insightful lay that guilt at the feet of Shrek. I personally could not care less, in all honesty. As long as the fine folks at DreamWorks, Disney, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and whoever else may be involved in the business keep doing what they do, I’ll take the more diluted offerings as they come. As for UglyDolls? I’ve seen worse. But thanks to the likes of Fruity Pebbles and others, I’ve also seen far better.
Man, I love Life.
The Bottom Line