Ugly Dolls and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment
Directed by Kelly Asbury
So are Ugly Dolls even a thing? I feel like it HAS to be a thing for this movie to even exist, but I’ve never heard of them and frankly the first thing that annoyed me about the trailers is how decidedly UN-ugly all the dolls were supposed to be. What, are big eyes fuzzy skin on a doll all of a sudden outside of societal norms? There’s no room in the world of the beautiful for dolls of non-humanoid proportions!? See, this is the kind of thinking that gave Sonic straight human teeth, the portions of an Olympic runner, and the eyes of a soulless monster! Say what you will about that Garbage Pail Kids movie, at least they knew what ugly meant! Okay, that’s PROBABLY not the best grounds to dismiss an entire movie on, but with only the occasional trailer and buzz leading up to its release, it certainly doesn’t seem like this is gonna be the sleeper hit of the year. Does it manage to defy expectations and be a really great movie despite how lacking the marketing has been, or are we doomed for yet another animated disaster in a year that already gave us Wonder Park? Let’s find out!!
In the happy town of Uglyville, everyone is happy and always partying which is easy to do when so many of them are inexplicably great singers and love to narrate their lives through song! One such resident is Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) who enjoys her simple life in this unassuming town of ugly dolls, but dreams of something more! She wants to be part of OUR world, by which I mean she wants to be a doll for a kid and… I guess she’s just waiting around for it to happen? Every morning she sings that THAT day will be THE day that she’ll get her own kid, but then just hangs out in Uglyville where no kids every come by. Eventually Moxy realizes that this is probably not the BEST strategy, so she convinces a few of the other residents of Uglyville, Ugly Dog, Wage, Lucky Bat, and Babo (Pitbull, Wanda Sykes, Wang Leehorn, and Gabriel Iglesias) to accompany her on a journey to outside of town. The only way out is also the only way in as there’s a giant tube in the side of a mountain that shoots out an ugly doll every once in a while to join the town, so she figures that they’ll climb up it and see where it goes. It turns out that it goes to a town called Perfection which is full of Barbie knockoffs that have to go through rigorous training before being allowed to go through the pearly gates which… I guess is where they’ll be packed into plastic boxes and sold on store shelves to hopefully wind up in a kid’s hands. The mechanics are a bit unclear, but the point is crystal! Moxy and her friends will face these challenges that all the other dolls have to go through in order to PROVE THEIR WORTH and pass through the gates themselves! However, the leader of Perfection named Lou (Nick Jonas) isn’t happy about these UGLY creatures fouling up his perfect little community and will do whatever it takes to stop them from achieving their dreams! Can Moxy and her friends find a way to not only pass the ridiculous tests set before them but perhaps make a positive change in Perfection in the process? Who is this doll named Mandy (Janelle Monáe) that keeps trying to help them, and what is her reason for doing so? Is it just me, or is this an overly complicated version of college frat comedy?
I could easily sit here and tell you this movie is just an awful waste of your time and it wouldn’t be an inaccurate assessment, but there’s something THERE that I’m having trouble putting into words. It’s mid-tier animation at best with a fourth rate story to be sure, but some of the ideas just on the margins of what’s going on are… kinda interesting? I mean look, you’ve got ninety percent or more of this movie as a generic Toy Story knockoff that is only notable for its cast of famous musicians (most of whom aren’t regular actors) and the other ten percent is only a vague allusion to something thought provoking, so we’re still not really talking about something that’s ACTUALLY worth seeing. Compared to something like Wonder Park though; a movie which tried and failed to have a deeper meaning behind it? This one for all its mediocrity and tedium at least caught my attention at points despite itself; and sure that’s damning with faint praise, but it’s not like this movie is getting any other kind of praise to speak of!
Before we get into what ALMOST works about this movie, we’re gonna have to start with most assuredly doesn’t, and that can basically be boiled down to the script and how it’s all edited. It’s movies like this that make you appreciate the elegance with which a movie like Toy Story manages to get across its rather absurd premise, and frankly its secret is in its simplicity. No it doesn’t explain EVERYTHING about the world, but it gives us enough of a peek into the mechanics of it all to make it believable enough for Buzz and Woody’s story to have weight and purpose. In this movie they just overthink and over design EVERYTHING to the point that you can’t buy this at its most basic conception; namely as a movie about ACTUAL toys in some sort of factory. It’s all far too complicated as each new bit of lore and world building seems to be there just to cover up a deficiency elsewhere, and the end result feels patch together and just plain awkward. Why is there a world where dolls have to PROVE THEIR WORTH before being sent out? Is Uglyville still WITHIN the factory, and if so how does it manage to have THIS many toys without drawing attention from someone? What the heck was up with that ludicrously elaborate journey from Uglyville to Perfection, and why is it never a factor when characters start to come and go at will? The movie aims for some sort of mix between Toy Story and The LEGO Movie, but those movies work for very different reasons and mixing them together would take much more skill than these filmmakers were able to put into this. Toy Story, while fantastical, is quite literally set within the real world meaning these toys are autonomous and can have a genuine impact on the environment around them. The LEGO Movie on the other hand eschews that sense of… I guess you could call it realism, to instead tell a story about something else by way of the fictionalized LEGO world. You can’t just mash those two together the way that this movie does because you somehow have to reconcile the fact that these toys are part of the real world AND ALSO they live in an imaginary world full of wonder and magic which doesn’t make any real sense and undercuts most of the drama!
Even if we ignore all that and try to just evaluate it on its nuts and bolts production chops, it still falls woefully short. The designs and animation are fine if not spectacular (the textures on the Ugly Dolls’ faces stretch and move in a very noticeable way whenever they were talking), and the movie has an odd flow to it that never really settles into a solid groove; instead coming across as herky-jerky and trimmed to the bone. One of the most blatantly obvious examples of the latter is that several times in the movie it pulls a Wackity Schmackity Doo which if you don’t know (I WILL turn that into a legitimate film term!) is the practice of having lines spoken by characters off screen in a way that calls attention to itself. Because of the pain staking process of animation, you REALLY have to have things set in stone well in advanced and lines like this indicate that even at the eleventh hour there were tweaks, additions and punch up being done despite being at the point where none of that should be happening, and that kind of retooling, tweaking, and fixing is felt throughout the movie. I don’t know what the third act was SUPPOSED to be, but those last twenty minutes have about a dozen plot twists, lore changes, and hot fixes to try and wrangle this thing into a workable narrative with, at best, mixed results. I mean look, Wonder Park having come out so recently and being so terrible puts a lot of things into perspective, so even THIS mess at the end is just mediocre in the grand scheme of things, but it’s just another place where this movie dropped the ball before it could ever get going.
Now as I said a few times already, there is SOMETHING there that almost works and it’s worth talking about because… well frankly nothing else about this movie is; even the bad stuff is just evokes a kind of dispassionate meh more than anything else. The idea of challenging beauty standards is nothing new, but often its couched in a sort of tongue in cheek sense of rebellion; sort of the same DOWN WITH THE SQUARES mentality that Animal House and Caddyshack reveled in. The most prominent example is Shrek which definitely had a message about seeing people for who they really were and what they looked like, but Shrek was also crude and defiant in the face of the society around them. The thing is, not everyone WANTS to be a rebel; they just want to be accepted for who they are and have the same dreams as the ones on top; whether they’re the privilege, the beautiful, the rich, or all of the above. There’s sincerity in Moxy’s goal to be a doll for a child and she’s not in Perfection to buck the system, rather to try and get her turn at what they all have, and that makes Lou’s villainy that much more cruel in my opinion. He’s not just tearing down a righteous menace; he’s actively trying to squash the hopes and dreams of someone who’s crime is just EXISTING; all because she looks different. I don’t know if they INTENDED this, but I think that kind of villain in this particular context is interesting if nothing else, and is certainly the kind of villain that’s reflective of the times we live in. I don’t want to go too far with it and say that Lou and the draconian systems of Perfection are analogous to white nationalism or anything… but I’m also not NOT saying that. There’s not enough bite here for something like that to stick anyway, and the weird plot contrivances and last minute twists in the third act completely water down whatever tertiary message can be gleamed, but accidental or not it’s… interesting that this movie found its way to that idea at all.
I’m sure kids will like it and it’s not the worst thing you can take your kids to see. Heck, I might even recommend it over Dumbo if for no other reason that it’s at least shorter. Even so, it’s just lacking in so much polish in basically all areas of its production that it comes off as almost an embarrassment when we’ve got Avengers still in theaters and Detective Pikachu right around the corner; both aimed at families just as much as this one and while I haven’t seen the latter I’m assuming that one’s gonna be the much better option to take your kids to. It’s not astonishingly bad, but it’s still not worth seeing even when it gets a home release. Seriously, the only reason that this DIDN’T go straight to video like a lot of other poorly made CGI films is that the celebrity voice cast bumped the budget up a bit and gave it a degree of star power to maybe carry it to a fourth place opening weekend instead of outright bombing. For a movie this mediocre, that sounds about fair.