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UglyDolls Plays in Familiar Territory

There are some pretty huge names attached to STX films’ new animated musical UglyDolls, particularly from the pop music sphere. But don’t expect Toy Story or anything close. Unlike the Disney classic, which tapped into the nostalgic yet bittersweet heart of why our childhood belongings are so beloved, this little movie offers nothing new in terms of storyline, dialog or visuals. Even the main characters seem very familiar, recalling everything from Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba creatures (the star, Moxy, is a dead ringer for Gabba‘s Foofah) to the fuzzy creatures we saw way back in those old Rankin/Bass stop-motion holiday movies like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

These namesake characters are supposed to be weird and unusual, but any parents whose kids actually owned UglyDolls (my daughter still has hers) will notice they’ve been tweaked for film; they’re brighter and cuter here, which is ironic since the central message of the film and the brand when it started was about not having to conform to standards of beauty to be lovable. Animating alt-plushies for mass consumption and movie screens is to be expected though, and admittedly the filmmakers did a good job on the appeal factor, if not on originality.

Though UglyDolls is awesome eye candy, it doesn’t meet the standard that’s been set for animated children’s films storywise. Even with an unconventional producer like Robert Rodriguez setting the tone and employing a cool multi-culty cast, this one will join the heap of flicks parents of 3-8 year olds just have to sit through — some might even say suffer through — as their lil’ ones chomp popcorn and soak it all up blissfully, enveloped by the vibrant spectacle and super-catchy but formulaic songs. At the end of the day, that’s the point, right?

And about the songs. The film boasts the acting and singing talents of Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe, Blake Shelton and Pitbull, and with a list like that expectations might be high for some amusing — if over-produced — musical numbers. Unfortunately, the song-writing here is unmemorable and repetitive at best, even with lots of in your face messages that any parent would approve of (self-love, looks aren’t everything, etc).

The basic story concerns one particularly determined ugly doll (Moxy, voiced by Clarkson) and her quest to escape her little town of Uglyville (where “weird is celebrated, strange is special”) so that she might be able to go to the real world and be loved by a human child.  In order to do that, dolls must go to another town, called Perfection. This town is populated by bubble-headed, plastic (in more ways than one) girls and boys with large eyes, yarn-hair and slender bodies (they aren’t as sexy as say, Barbie, nor as realistic as American Girl dolls, but they’re somewhere in between). The potential players are trained on how make it in the real world by Perfection’s man in charge, a douchey blonde boy by the name of Lou (Nick Jonas), who along with his three mean girl minions set out make sure that the Ugly Dolls don’t fulfill their dreams. Of course, they do ultimately and that’s thanks to help from one of Perfection’s more open-minded pretty things named Mandy (Janelle Monáe), who’s somewhat of an outsider because she wears glasses and thinks for herself.

Looking and acting perfect is presented as the only option for “making it” and the film is filled with these kinds of real life parallels and attempts to disprove them.  Moxy and her friends — Ugly Dog (Pitbull), a scruffy blue canine with one yellow eye; Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), a cute red winged one and considered the wise one; Wage (Wanda Sykes), an orange, apron-wearing female furry known for cynical wisecracks; and Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), the big, dumb strong guy with a heart of gold, are lovable of course. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be watching the movie to begin with.

Babo, by the way, was probably the signature UglyDoll when the line from creators David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim first came to be in 2001. My kid cried many a crocodile tear on his flat, grey, pillow-like torso growing up and so he survived the last Goodwill dump, even after a Marie Kondo-inspired purge. It’s no surprise that some enterprising movie industry folk saw potential in this quirky brand as a movie and marketing tie-in (I do love the bus stop benches they turned into the film’s characters all over town). But while the dolls themselves have proven to spark joy that endures past childhood, the movie probably won’t do the same.