‘UglyDolls’ offers cute music and positive messages but through a discounted narrative
Directed by: Kelly Asbury
Written by: Alison Peck
Starring: Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, Ice-T, Pitbull, Blake Shelton, Wanda Sykes, Gabriel Iglesias, and Jane Lynch
“UglyDolls” – “It’s not easy being green.” – Kermit the Frog
Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a rejected doll from a toy factory, proudly sports pink fur and three teeth and lives with her fellow oddities in Uglyville, a coastal community, complete with rugged, steep peaks made from cardboard boxes. Her friends Uglydog (Pitbull), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Ox (Blake Shelton) love Uglyville, and Moxy appreciates her home too, but she dreams of becoming the best doll-friend to a little girl in The Big World.
Ox, the town mayor, wishes that Moxy would just enjoy her current digs and opines, “It doesn’t get better than this,” but she thinks that Out There could be better and leads her polyester pals on a passage to potential paradise.
Director Kelly Asbury’s film offers some awfully important messages for younger kids. You see, his dolls do not sport Barbie’s perfect blonde hair or G.I. Joe’s bulging biceps. Instead these squatty, Muppet-like, huggable creations mimic the misfit toys’ circumstances in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964), except the 2019 group of playthings carry more optimism than their North Pole counterparts.
With a cast that includes Clarkson, Pitbull, Shelton, and Janelle Monae, Asbury’s picture absolutely calls for light fun through music, and “UglyDolls” certainly hits some high notes, especially with Clarkson and Monae leading “Today’s the Day” and “All Dolled Up”, respectively. Five year-olds will munch on popcorn and bob their heads to the upbeat beats, and parents will toe-tap as well. In fact, the aforementioned “UglyDolls” numbers are more memorable than anything performed in the overhyped “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018).
On the other hand, after its catchy tunes and positive messages, playtime with “UglyDolls” is over, as the plot devices - to (hopefully) carry Moxy to her higher purpose - take shortcuts. The film just jogs in place during the second and third acts. Moxy only needs to make one stop at The Institute of Perfection before reaching her dreams, but she and her buds need to cope – seemingly forever - with a whiny brat named Lou (Nick Jonas) and a 200-doll-clique of perfect-looking figures and figurines who poke fun at our colorful furballs, solely based on their looks.
Asbury sends the audience to this imperfect world of perfection to sit through forced, inane conflicts started by Lou for about 50 minutes of the film’s 87-minute runtime. Despite Lou’s best push into tyranny, he’s about as threatening as an inch worm’s impact on 5pm freeway traffic, and his threatening Gauntlet challenge - at the picture’s crescendo - turns into a familiar and tired “The Hunger Games” (2012) gimmick.
This critic was starving for on-screen inspiration, but these one-dimensional “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) lookalikes are not given a whole lot to do. Their new ally Mandy (Monae) does give the gang a makeover – so they feel better about themselves - but that conflicts with one of the movie’s chief points: be proud of who you are.
Maybe kids won’t notice the irony or forget it entirely, especially with “All Dolled Up” blasting through movie theatre speakers. Maybe they won’t question that the town is named Uglyville, but everyone seems accepting of their appearances. Maybe the film is just an hour and a half distraction.
Well, it’s not easy being green…or pink, but neither is sitting – with a critical eye - through “UglyDolls”.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.