The fears of UglyDolls being little more than a phoned-in narrative built more for pushing toys than weaving a genuine tale are real. But what’s most maddening is that there’s so much potential in the concept that is left unexplored, and the film didn’t have to fall back on predictable characters and lackluster original songs to carry itself. There are brilliant themes of being comfortable with the skin you’re born in, a fear of eugenics in striving for perfection, and even some spirituality if you peer close enough. But you’re really going to have to squint to find that unique core to a film that is slathered in pounds of old confetti leftover from better animated films.
Perhaps I’m thinking too hard about this movie to find such potential because I was so uninterested in its simplicity. We’re introduced to Uglyville as the land of misfits, where those not destined to become children’s toys reside. Shot out of a metal tube, they descend into a bright felt world of misshapen and deformed dolls that don’t look too shabby for being considered “ugly.” Maybe that’s why the plucky Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) seems so sure she has a little girl waiting for her embrace on the other side of the toy world coming her way. The bunny-like leader Ox (Blake Shelton) tries to push her curiosity down, and it’s pretty easy to do in song by assuring her that life doesn’t get much better than this.
It isn’t long before Moxy finally decides to take a closer at that tube that keeps popping out UglyDolls. I did as well but only found more questions awaiting on the other side. One crazy tube ride later, she happens upon the place where all the pretty and proper dolls go, the Institute of Perfection. This is apparently the last stop before the approved dolls, all looking like humans with thin bodies and big heads, can go out into the world and each be the toy of a child. Who makes the call on when they’re ready? It seems like the robots around the institute keep things in order, but the pristine and pompous doll Lou (Nick Jonas) provides a face for that judgmental evil. He wants Moxy to fail but decides to let her fail properly, only resorting to dirty tactics when he can sense she’s gaining ground. If you fail at the institute, it’s the incinerator for you.
It’s unfortunate that the characters of UglyDolls all feel like disposable joke vehicles, including the slew of shallow, one-note characters that accompany Moxy. Uglydog (Pitbull) is the DJ who does little more than provide the music and throw on sunglasses to enforce the cool. Wage (Wanda Sykes) is a baker, but you’ll only see her bake once and then turn into the standard I-told-you-so character who provides just a handful of snide comments. Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang) is the smart one and only makes a few small observations along the way. And then there’s Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), a resourceful giant who seems to have all manner of useful devices in his pocket but still feels he has nothing to offer. There’s an interesting metaphor for the entire film’s squandering of greatness within Babo.
So much of UglyDolls phones in its drama as if to water it all down to be more serviceable for the younger crowd. Consider how the perfect doll Mandy (Janelle Monáe) conceals her nearsightedness in fear she’ll be exterminated for not conforming to doll society standards. There’s some great drama to be had here, but you’ll only get it neatly packaged in a tame and heavy-handed song, forcing in the message amid all the rampant silliness bobbling around the screen. It’s especially concerning that some of that message seems to be lost in the giddier lyrics, in which Mandy sings about how fun it is to get all dolled up to her UglyDoll allies, only to resort to a somber closure that it’s not that great. Which part do you think kids are going to remember more when the sadness comes most artificial?
UglyDolls has all the throwback allure of a 1980s cartoon more concerned with selling toys than being a story. Despite its warped logic around staging doll certification, its message is a good one, but it comes packaged as an afterthought to the more crucial focus of making sure there’s lots of songs, dancing, and comedy kids can relate to. Where Pixar productions usually serve up meaty themes of family (The Incredibles), emotions (Inside Out), and death (Coco), UglyDolls merely tosses us a handful of craic crackers written with misspelled morals. It may be appetizing enough for some kids, but the adults will be starving on this one.