It may seem hard to believe right now, but not every movie that lands at the box office is about superheroes. In the wake of “Avengers: Endgame,” and clearly hoping to take advantage of the smash hit’s sophomore weekend drop off, “UglyDolls” arrives in theaters with a family-friendly pitch — and a toy store friendly cast of characters. The film is obviously geared towards the younger set, with loudly popping cartoon colors and a cheerful dance-pop soundtrack. But adults may enjoy it too, especially if they are hip enough to know who Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Bebe Rexha are.
For the uninitiated, the real-life UglyDolls were created in 2001 by David Horvath and Sun-min Kim from a doodle. The first doll — the one based on that original sketch — was called Wage. (Wage is one of the UglyDolls in the film, though not the lead, and is voiced by Wanda Sykes.) Over the course of the aughts, these ridiculous “so ugly they’re cute” plushies caught on like cartoon wildfire.
And from the outside, "UglyDolls" looks like little more than a film hoping to raise toy sales this holiday season.
And from the outside, "UglyDolls" looks like little more than a film hoping to raise toy sales this holiday season, the kind of movie that could be shelved next to similar films like (the terrible) “Trolls,” or (the bizarre) “Angry Birds Movie.” “UglyDolls” leans aesthetically more towards the former than the latter, with a candy-colored cast of animated dolls who are blissfully unaware they live in “Uglyville” because their looks made them commercial outcasts. The story is also blessedly straightforward, with a happy-go-lucky “be yourself” message and a plot that revolves around the “Toy Story”-like notion that dolls are fulfilled by the love of a child.
However, like an UglyDoll, looks can be deceiving. This movie has a slyly funny side, trading on its A-list cast of voice actors. The film stars Kelly Clarkson as the malformed Moxy. Anyone worried this might be a “From Justin To Kelly” redux can breathe easy. Clarkson feels right at home in the role, which plays off her famously sunny TV personality. Moxy believes every morning is the morning — the day she finally finds the human child who will love her. It helps that she’s surrounded by a cadre of fellow pop denizens, like “The Voice” co-star Blake Shelton, who plays Uglyville’s mayor, Ox. Moxy’s faithful dog is voiced by Pitbull, who seems to have been cast mostly for his ability to supply simplified rap breakdowns on the soundtrack — and perhaps also for his puppy-themed moniker.
The adventure — because all good toy movies need an adventure — begins when the UglyDolls attempt to find out what’s beyond Uglyville, and wind up marching off to the neighboring college town dominated by the Institute of Perfection. The institute is where pretty dolls go to make sure they snag a coveted spot on a shopping mall shelf — and ideally, a human child who will buy them and take them home. Moxy, wishing to become intellectual enough to engage in the capitalist marketplace, demands to enroll, despite the institute’s openly discriminatory practices against dolls who aren’t models.
Her opponents are voiced by members of the newest generation of pop stars, led by Nick Jonas as Lou, and his gaggle of wannabes, voiced by Janelle Monáe, Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha and Lizzo. Jonas, who is in the midst of a family reunion/career revival after a middling solo career, plays Lou like the perfect Mean Doll. He’s the Draco Malfoy of Spotify, whose model good looks come paired with the kind of acidic passive aggression that would make Regina George jealous. Lou's devoted band of underlings — Charli, Bebe and Lizzo — are so desperate for Lou's approval that they kidnap Mayor Ox on Lou’s orders. Thankfully, Mandy, the Monáe-voiced doll, is too cool for that, a fact anyone who has listened to “Dirty Computer” already knows. Her morals, coupled with her ability to perfectly harmonize with Clarkson’s higher register, turn the two of them into allies against stuffie injustice.
One cannot get through a review of the film without mentioning the songs, which are crucial for padding out the plot’s 88-minute run time and the most enjoyable part of the film. Unlike “Trolls,” which was coming as Justin Timberlake’s career started to trend downward and was clearly designed to prop him up again with its “Cant’ Stop the Feeling” earworm, Clarkson is still mostly at the top of her game. “UglyDolls” is merely another step in her world domination plans, and the pop tunes that comes along with it, as KidzBop-ready as they are, are honestly just as strong as what some of her pop rivals are producing in the studio.
No one will mistake “UglyDolls” for great art, and it’s doubtful this will be one of the films padding the Oscar category for best animated film next year around “Frozen 2.” But the movie is fine with that. And for a movie that will likely have a very popular Netflix kids run, it’s actually pretty good. A lot of other options in this genre are lot worse, and not nearly as self-aware. The fairly obvious message of “UglyDolls” is that's OK to love yourself, despite your limitations. And that's true for the movie, too.