On the surface (and for the first 15 minutes) UglyDolls appears to be a happy go lucky animated feature about body positivity, inclusivity and finding a place to belong. Which is nice. But if the reign of Donald Trump and the rise of Boris have taught us anything, it is that we don’t get to have nice things any more so beneath the superficial pretties a heart curdled with darkness beats.
Perky pink Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) wakes to the embrace of another cushiony soft day of sunshine, smiles and sing-songs. Uglyville is the very best place in the world to live and she’s a super lucky doll. Yet somewhere in her heart she still yearns for the day when she can fulfil her destiny to live with a real child in the Big World.
She belts out a stirring song – Today’s the Day/Couldn’t Be Better – and it inspires her to make her wish come true. Against the express wishes of the town’s mayor, Ox (Blake Shelton), Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom) guides her to the tube new arrivals spring from and Moxy, Lucky Bat and their friends – Wage (Wanda Sykes), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Ugly Dog (Pitbull) – step into the unknown.
Uglyville is a patchwork place of welcome for the outcast toys who tumble down the reject tube. We, the audience, have seen their rejection from the conveyor belt of their birth during the opening credits but the Ugly Dolls remain oblivious. Mayor Ox seems determined to keep it that way. Making his decision to name the sanctuary town Uglyville somewhat odd…
Moxy and her intrepid band of misfit toys emerge into a brightly lit world of aesthetic inspiration – The Institute of Perfection – a place where toys train to be perfect for the day they are united with their child in the Big World. They are coldly received by the institute’s trainees and downright mocked by a cluster of mean girls (on Wednesdays they wear judgemental expressions on their faces). But Moxy will not be deterred from her destiny.
Her faith in a higher power redoubles when she meets evangelical looks-preacher Lou (Nick Jonas). His welcome song – The Ugly Truth – sells a message of hope for the future that she eagerly buys in to. Even if the lyrics and sneering delivery are cutting and cruel. Moxy’s friends struggle to share her optimism. Especially after several punishing turns in the washer/dryer.
Future perfection candidate Mandy (Janelle Monáe), secretly empathises with the Ugly Dolls. She has an imperfect secret of her own. Mandy. Needs. Glasses. *gasp* After seeing her friends and surroundings more clearly, she determines to help the dolls beat Lou and to help Moxy find her happy ever after. Lou enlists his Spy Girls and some dirty tricks to oppose them and the fight to win The Gauntlet begins.
In the wake of Toy Story 4, UglyDolls could easily serve as a prequel to the Toy Story series. Its intensive indoctrination program and looping propaganda films would explain Woody’s default child-first mindset. A split-second glimpse of one of Andy’s toys would elevate UglyDolls from all filler no killer summer holiday eye fluff to actual TOY INCEPTION!!!
Andy’s toys do not appear in Ugly Dolls.
Neither do heartfelt emotion, original plot points or any onscreen rebuttal of the message that pretty is good and ‘ugly’ is bad. Somewhere along the line, someone assumed that it went without saying that we’re all beautiful inside and out, flaws and all. So they didn’t say it. In fact, Alison Peck’s screenplay relies on us drawing our own conclusions on many points. Which led us to conclude that UglyDolls is derivative and weak.
Squandering a talented vocal cast and promising soundtrack, director Kelly Asbury sleepwalks through the by-numbers narrative without delivering a single surprise. The only surprise is that Robert Rodriguez – he of the quirky creative voice, the man behind Planet Terror, Spy Kids and Machete – conceived the original story and was first signed on to direct. One can only imagine the fun he might have had seeing the project through.
Imagining the film that might have been: a good way to spend the runtime of UglyDolls.
UglyDolls opens across the UK on Friday 16th August