STX Entertainment is not exactly the first, second or even third name in animation and there’s a very simple reason for that…they’ve had no animated movies released to date until now. “UglyDolls” is their first attempt at making a mark in the animation market and is directly inspired by the Uglydoll toy line that debuted in 2001. I was hesitant to give this movie a chance because it’s message of self-acceptance in a world that demands perfection was obviously pandering and the bulk of its cast is made up of singers meaning it was destined to lean, maybe too heavily, on a soundtrack to tell its story. But I DID, in fact, decide to give it a go and see if it could continue what has really been a good year for animated films in 2019. Is “UglyDolls” the pandering mess the trailers made it out to be or, like the dolls themselves, is there more to STX’s animated debut than meets the eye. Let’s find out. This is my review of “UglyDolls”.
“UglyDolls” takes place in a world of anthropomorphic dolls who are all unique and quirky and live in a society called Uglyville. One doll, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), has an undying curiosity for a legendary world beyond their own where children cherish dolls and she longs to enjoy this simple pleasure. Despite Uglyville’s chipper mayor Ox (Blake Shelton) advising against it Moxy takes off on an adventure with her friends Ugly Dog (Pitbull), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), and Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) to find out where the pipe that brings new citizens to the villager leads. The group discovers a second society of human-like dolls called the Institute of Perfection where they meet Lou (Nick Jonas) the egotistic leader of the institute who tells the dolls they will never be loved by children. Determined to prove Lou wrong, the dolls enroll in a program to prove their worth as playthings and with the help of sympathetic and secretly imperfect doll Mandy (Janelle Monáe) they just might prove to the world that sometimes it’s what’s inside not what’s outside that counts the most.
“UglyDolls” is not a property I was familiar with before this film. I had probably seen the toys around but didn’t care enough to invest any memory in them myself so I will admit when I first saw the trailer for this movie I immediately thought it was an attempt at launching a toy line. Instead, however, it is simply an attempt at taking the already established toys and bringing them to the cinema. No surprise it was originally going to be made by Illumination which has quickly become a cinema franchise machine. But a lot has happened since this film’s announcement in 2011 which led it to be produced by STXfilms and become WAY behind its own time. Sure the Ugly Dolls line still exists but it’s far from the cash grab it once was which, to me, makes this film feel both completely random and out of date. After I had learned that this was based on a toy line I then embraced a bias I often get where I wonder why this had to become a film. It’s the same perspective I had with “Battleship” and “The Emoji Movie” and sadly “Ugly Dolls” left me just as frustrated in its own existence as those two movies did. Admittedly “UglyDolls” does try a bit harder than those predecessors but in the end, it still feels like a strange and poor attempt at revitalizing the popularity of a dying franchise that never needed a movie in the first place.
Like many films of this kind, “UglyDolls” is clearly made to pander to the young audience that it targets but in doing so it also waters down its message and throws pretty much everything at the viewers in rapid succession with very few breaths. “UglyDolls” moves so fast that it took me until half the movie to even know who the characters were and what set them apart. The pacing makes this film feel like its in fast forward and the irony is it’s not like it had a lot of story to tell and just needed to cram it in an hour and a half. Most of the run time is committed to musical numbers written with basic lyrics and typical earworm melodies meant to force-feed deep concepts without the slightest bit of nuance or subtlety. The vocals are actually usually pretty good which should be expected since most of the cast are professional singers, but there lies part of the problem. “UglyDolls” cares more about selling iTunes songs and toys than it does selling anything of substance to its audience. Sure there are lessons we’re supposed to learn, but we’re not given enough time to absorb them or even care about them before the emotional impact is overshadowed by cliché dialogue and attempts at simple, easy laughs.
I guess it should be said that I am judging “UglyDolls” as an adult and it wasn’t made for me. This is a kids movie and many will say that the comprehension of children is much different than that of adults and that simple, fast-paced concepts might be better for them to grasp. I say bull crap. Pixar has offered deep, well thoughts out and well-paced messages to children. DreamWorks has done it from time to time. Even Illumination has managed to incorporate these deeper morals into very child-friendly films with an entire franchise built on a villain who learns how to become a hero. Is it REALLY so bad for me to expect a film about ugly rag dolls trying to find positivity in themselves to care more about making sure their message sinks in properly without speeding through these morals and mixing them in with a bland soundtrack? What makes “UglyDolls” so frustrating to me is it does have a powerful message about body positivity and self-identity to share but it does it so poorly, so quickly and with so little true conviction that it felt insincere. Like “The Emoji Movie” before it that also tried to use a self-identity message to justify its existence, “UglyDolls” phones in its morals for the sake of an adventure that’s not that fun, not that memorable and certainly far from original.
I will give credit where it’s due though. The animation in “UglyDolls” is nicely done with some pretty neat little details worked into some of the character designs including doll string for the human dolls’ hair which is a nice touch. I did also chuckle at a few jokes so there were at least some moments where I was mildly amused. The Uglydolls themselves were kind of cool with some standing out more than others and clearly there was some inspiration and imagination put into how they looked. Again I’m not familiar with the toy line so I don’t know if these designs came right from the source or were original to the film but I liked them nonetheless. Some were downright adorable. As I previously said the songs are all also performed well and the voiceovers for the character were also well done even by performers who aren’t used to acting. While it’s clear a lot of the names involved were brought on to the project for the pure sake of adding as many big names as they good to sell the film I never once felt like anyone in the voice cast wasn’t committed and damnit Kelly Clarkson is just so chipper in this movie is adorably disgusting…in a good way. So, on the most basic levels, “UglyDolls” has some merit. It’s fun to look at, can be fun to listen to and despite its gimmicky cast it feels like everyone involved really knew and cared about what they were doing.
But for me I just didn’t have fun watching this movie. Maybe it’s because I went in with low expectations to begin with, maybe it’s because I am an adult and this wasn’t made for me…or maybe it’s because it actually is a bad movie with basic writing, pandering morals and more concern with its soundtrack than its script. Regardless “UglyDolls” was far from a pleasant experience for me. When you get right down to it this is quite literally nothing we’ve never seen before. The mostly-singer cast is nothing new, the phoned in moral core is nothing new, the idea of living toys is nothing new, and the UglyDolls themselves as a brand are nothing new as they take to the big screen well beyond their prime. If you have little kids and you want to keep them busy for an hour and a half this isn’t a bad movie to take them too. But, for a movie about looking underneath the exterior to find the hidden beauty, the ultimate irony is that “UglyDolls” strengths lie on the surface in the voice acting and visuals but it’s what hides beneath all that, the script, the hollow and cliched morals, and the story, that fail to shine.