by Trevor Sheffield
So, here we go again. Another movie based off another vaguely forgotten franchise from years past, made in an attempt to Dracula the clutter of eons ago into the new, hot fad of today. Normally, this kind of thing is reserved for franchises with mass appeal and nostalgia, like childhood TV shows, time-honored playthings, or even arcade machines.
Now, we have a movie based on that one weird-looking rabbit thing on the couch from Zathura. What could possibly go wrong?
Hey, where’s Ugly Dog?
UglyDolls, directed by Kelly Asbury and released May 3, tells the story of Moxie (Kelly Clarkson), a deformed plush living in Uglyville alongside a cabal of similarly whacked-out playthings voiced by celebrities and pop stars for no good reason beyond having big names on the poster. Moxie yearns for nothing more than the companionship of a child in “the big world” and ultimately decides to head out on a trek to find it, joined by neurotic stereotype Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), wide boy Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), sassy baker Wage (Wanda Sykes, typecast as the “sassy black friend” for the fifty-millionth time in a row), and the hip/cool/adjective Ugly Dog (Pitbull, who literally helped produce the movie). Together, they stumble onto the Institute of Perfection, a prep school for dolls overseen by blond-haired blue-eyed prettyboy Lou (Joe Jonas). Heads are butted, norms are challenged, and of the two films this year that prominently feature a gauntlet in the climax (the context being that our protagonists have to undergo a ‘gauntlet’ set up by Lou to actually enter our world), this film’s is surprisingly less meaningful than that bedazzled oven mitt that can murder people.
Either way, shenanigans ensue, and yes, it’s not very good. Without even going deep into it, this has all the callsigns of your typical “fake kids movie” kids movie. It’s the kind of movie that looks like a placeholder for another, better film, meant to either comment on the stereotypes of these kinds of flicks, or otherwise feel like it was designed by executives with a checklist to ensure profitability: A needlessly loaded cast? Check. Character designs that look focus tested to hell and back? Check. Musical numbers that force all members of the cast to sing, despite the fact that some clearly cannot (Sykes!)? Check!
Actually, while we’re on the topic, the music is the most interesting thing to discuss about this movie. This is almost solely because in comparison to LITERALLY everything else, it actually feels…unique?
Pomp and circumstance (or lack thereof)
That’s the weird thing about this movie. The trailers depict it as a straight knock-off of Dreamworks’ Trolls…and they’re not wrong. However, the actual product has more in common with something from the stage than from the screen. All of the music in this movie, despite sounding like it was composed on a variety of floppy disk drives playing gargled midis of score from The Lego Movie, has this strangely old-school musical aesthetic to the lyrics and composition that’s hard not to sort of buy into.
Asbury, in an interview with Cartoon Brew, mentioned that he effectively wanted to tell the story of this film as if it were being produced in the 40s, and in that aspect, I can see it. Some set pieces give off a Fosse-ian vibe, where a song exists less to advance the plot or characterization and more to just act as spectacle and a showcase for the cast, which would be fine if this were actually a live, theatrical performance.
It’s hard NOT to see where the film’s limited budget shines through. There’s instances of reused footage (Lou’s number has this bad), reused settings (while appropriate, the Institute of Perfection is mainly just the same house model copy/pasted over and over again), and sometimes instances where the only things in 3D are the characters themselves. Multiple sequences take place in pitch black nothingness, and there’s a non-zero percentage of this movie that has our characters singing and dancing weightlessly on flat, single-color backgrounds.
If this were a theatrical performance, these low-budget “tells” would feel more endearing, so to speak. However, it’s clear with a cast like this, something had to drop…and that “something” was literally everything except the cast.
The imperfect truth
When push comes to shove, UglyDolls strikes me as a film that is fundamentally at odds with itself. It preaches the values of uniquity or so-called “ugliness” as well as being oneself, being a good friend, not goose-stepping to the beat of a Jonas Brother, etc., yet ties these values and emotional connections to a toy line of overpriced plush weirdos that literally got redesigned to be more marketable. It oozes with potential creativity, yet feels held back and focus grouped to death just so that it’d be guaranteed to make some level of money, even when facing off against Endgame. Its music has the soul of some off-off-Broadway project, yet sounds like the very music The Lego Movie films were deliberately making fun of for being cheap, commercial, and soulless.
Is UglyDolls bad? No. Compared to most of the toy movies hitting post-Lego, it could be far worse. However, when looking at the film for what it is, it could be a lot better, too.
Featured Image: IMDb
'UglyDolls' is a toy movie that feels emblematic of the innately commercialized nature of the sub-genre…and that almost works in its favor. A subversive dive into the theatrical cheese of Broadway-style musicals manages to give the film a sense of identity, yet fails to make up for shoehorned-in celebrities and a thin plot that would leave anybody over the age of four squirming in their seats of boredom. Ready or not, the UglyDolls and their promise of absurdity are here. Shame that the movie didn’t make good on it.
Trevor is a Telecommunications major who enjoys long walks on the beach, music from at least thirty years ago, and subjecting himself to critically panned media for kicks. He has been reviewing film since his sophomore year of high school, and intends to enter the industry after college.