Cinematic Releases: UglyDolls (2019) - Reviewed

At the turn of the millennium, two creative friends separated by distance started a line of plush characters and called them Uglydolls. “Ugly”, to David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim, was a word used to describe the unique quirks that make a person – or a doll – special, setting them apart from the crowd. In their lingo, it’s a compliment – the original dozen or so characters Horvath and Kim created for their toy line are brightly colored, vaguely shaped little creatures that are “ugly-cute” in a goofy, off-kilter way, leading to a cult following and an expansion of many more characters. As far back as 2011, amid continuing new character launches in the line of plushies, Illumination announced that there would be a feature film based around the Uglydolls – and, eight years later, STXfilms has made it a reality.

What results is a well-meaning, but confounding, little film ostensibly about learning to be oneself and seeing one’s flaws as positive additions to one’s character, full of unnecessarily expository songs and a truly confusing plot, despite its relative simplicity. Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a blobby pink Uglydoll shaped like a little girl, loves her life in Uglyville with all of her friends but longs to be loved by a child in the “real world” beyond it. She and a ragtag group of her fellow “uglies” find that they must pass through the “perfect doll” academy before they are permitted access to human children, participating in an ill-defined training program that seeks to make a doll “perfect” enough for a person to love. Predictably, the doll academy’s ideas of perfection are surface-deep, which means the Uglydolls don’t fit in and are sent back to their own little town in despair and rejection. Moxy refuses to give up, though, and with the help of Mandy (Janelle MonĂ¡e), one of the “perfect” dolls who also feels like an outsider, the group of misfits challenge themselves to compete for their right to achieve their dreams.

The haphazard villain of the story is Lou (Nick Jonas), a handsomely coiffed “perfect” doll with a nasty superiority complex whose motives for hating the Uglydolls are not terribly well defined. He seems to run on a particularly cruel form of Schadenfreude at first, then devolves into a nemesis so petty that his only really successful bad deed is hurting feelings. He commands a posse of fan-girls voiced by Lizzo, Charli XCX and Bebe Rexha who do most of his dirty work for him, though they end up remembered mainly as interchangeable, bland backup singers for his boastful songs.

It feels like a waste for this film to have such stellar voice talent, particularly for its musical numbers – the songs are twee and far too numerous. There is little nuance to the presence of most of them, and Futurama’s Robot Devil would be chiding them for lacking any subtlety (“You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”) or for failing to  enhance the emotional advancement of the plot. And that’s a pity, because the vocal talent in this movie really deserves better. Of particular note is Pitbull’s voicing of Ugly Dog, an adorable wisecracking one-eyed blue Uglydoll, who seems to appear whenever the scene is getting too cutesy in order to provide what amounts to the antics of a cyclops Poochie. It all feels really outdated, and a lot less about celebrating inner beauty than about selling Uglydolls merchandise and pandering to what adults think children want in an animated movie.

This is an odd choice of franchise for a feature film in 2019, and as hard as it tries, it doesn’t hit any of the targets it sets for itself. Despite the delightful designs of the original characters and the idea that even the flawed are deserving of love, it ironically just doesn’t really fit in. The stakes are vague and confusing, the songs distract from the emotional beats instead of helping to increase their impact, and the comedy reads almost as though it’s making fun of itself. UglyDolls seems to want to be Trolls, but it isn’t enough to just have a lot of happy, rainbow-colored characters singing about their feelings to tell a compelling story. It’s difficult to care about such flat characters, especially with such a strangely set-up narrative. It’s unfortunate that it falls so short, because it would actually have made a charming series of storybooks, or possibly even a television special or direct-to-DVD movie for kids. The dolls themselves stand on their own with their genuine sweetness and don’t really need the boost, and as much of an effort UglyDolls makes to stand out, it feels really out of its wheelhouse on the big screen.

--Dana Culling