uglydolls review

When UglyDolls opened with a scene of faceless dolls being manufactured on an assembly line, I wondered if it was being too on the nose. But subtlety, or irony, are not words that exist in the vocabulary of the STX Entertainment CG-animated movie, which produces as many empty platitudes and hollow proverbs about self-love as there are versions of UglyDolls.

Directed by Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2, Gnomeo and Juliet), UglyDolls is a movie designed for maximum outreach and replayability. In the ongoing content vs. cinema debate, UglyDolls falls squarely in the “content” arena: Its musical sequences presented like bright pop music videos, its characters made cute and non-threatening, its sweet self-empowering messages packaged up in tidy little bows. But the great tragedy of this shiny product is that the plush toyline upon which its based was a truly inspired creation made by two friends, David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, who simply wanted to share their colorful characters with the world. Instead, their toyline has produced an empty piece of corporate media.

UglyDolls follows the free-spirited Moxie (Kelly Clarkson), an UglyDoll who dreams about entering the Real World and finding a child that will love her. Moxie has gathered around her a lovable group of friends that all have their own unique quirks: Wage (Wanda Sykes), a sassy chef who cooks up just as many comebacks as dishes; Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), the wise and insecure advisor; Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) a strong doll with kleptomaniac tendencies; and Pitbull as…a rapping doll named Ugly Dog. Yes, really.

After some misinterpreted guidance from Lucky Bat sends Moxie on a quest to find the Real World for herself, she and her friends stumble upon a town called Perfection, populated by symmetrically faced models dressed in high school uniforms. Realizing that Perfection is her only chance to reach the Real World, Moxie convinces her friends to join her in passing the strict tests set by Perfection’s leader Lou (Nick Jonas, doing a thinly veiled Justin Bieber impression), who will do anything to get rid of the UglyDolls.

The reason that the entire cast is almost exclusively pop stars-cum-actors is because UglyDolls is, inexplicably, a musical. There’s no inherent reason for this — the UglyDoll toys never showed any indication of being musically inclined, nor have singing dolls been shown to do well with a target audience. But UglyDolls seems to be following the trend as of late to cast vocally adept actors in animated family films (Trolls, The LEGO Movie, Smurfs) in order to score a Top 40 hit and earn the studio another revenue stream. Not that this practice is abhorrent in any way —Disney maintains its pop culture behemoth status with the help of massively successful earworms like “Let It Go” — but with UglyDolls it feels particularly egregious because of how obvious the intention is. The songs are made with easy radio listening in mind, all sleek production and multiple horn sections.

UglyDolls covers all its bases with a variety of musical genres too, from Disney-inspired songs that a drunk Alan Menken might have penned, to a theme song (“Couldn’t Be Better”) that veers eerily close to The LEGO Movie‘s “Everything is Awesome.” When Janelle Monae (who plays the lonely “Perfect” doll who befriends the Uglies) sings about loving herself, she is lifted out of the movie into a generic music video setting that could have been made in a YouTube video hit factory. The stars do their best to jazz up the songs, but their pop-star natures only succeed in making the songs less sincere, with R&B runs and country twangs only making each track sound more like a painfully banal radio hit. Clarkson is the exception, delivering each of her spoken and sung lines with a Disney princess-esque enthusiasm, but her Moxie is not enough. And don’t get me started on Pitbull’s rap verses.

The derivative songs only scratch the surface of the film’s recycled elements. There is imagery that is blatantly lifted right out of other (better) animated films: the lanterns from Tangled, the incinerator from Toy Story 3, the facial stylings of the Dreamworks face. UglyDolls is also full of random cinematic homages, from a reference to Oliver Twist, to one sequence done entirely in the style of Depression-era talkies. For what reason? Who knows? But UglyDolls is so jam-packed with stuff that it feels like a never-ending content machine.

For a film supposedly about originality, its “unique” heroes all look remarkably similar. There is nothing particularly “ugly” about the titular dolls — in fact, with their big eyes and soft, fuzzy figures, they present a much more friendly face than the so-called “Perfect” dolls whose mannequin-like appearances unintentionally calls to mind many a horror movie. While the film does throw in a few chuckle-worthy jokes that poke fun at film’s own formula (the best joke goes to the reference of each “Perfect” doll as an insert-career-here/model), the humor doesn’t fill in the gaps of UglyDolls‘ tenuous plot.

It would be all more believable if the real-life UglyDolls toyline wasn’t such a major global success. The plush dolls were a phenomenon from the moment they hit shelves in 2001, going on to appear in all manner of pop culture properties — from music videos, to K-dramas, comic strips. They were so ubiquitous precisely for their general pleasing demeanors that didn’t offend or grate. Despite their “Ugly” name, they were cute.

UglyDolls tries to present its heroes as underdogs that come from an island of misfit toys, but there is little “misfit” about them. All the characters are perfectly tried and tested for maximum likability (yes, even Pitbull). It’s not weird, or original, it’s just safe. And it’s a real shame that the cool alternative toy line that grew out of two friends who wanted to create something unique turned into a shiny corporate knockoff.

/Film Rating: 2 out of 10

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