AN COLORFUL (AND IMPERFECT)
Animated movies are still “all the rage” with current Hollywood. While not a groundbreaking new arena to pioneer in, the Tinseltown industry of moviemaking has always endeavored to provide animated cartoon features for children for countless years, creating a long line of animated films from a variety of different studios. While some of the more prominent / powerhouse ones have pave the way for future animated movies and to be the leading / premier animation studios of late (i.e Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination Entertainment, etc.), other smaller studios have tried their hand in full-length animated movies and, while some might be “hit or miss”, most provide an interesting look in visual cartoon animation, narrative storytelling, and the selection of voice talents. Now, STX Entertainment and director Kelly Asbury present an animated tale of imperfect beauty and acceptance in in the movie Ugly Dolls. Does this movie find its place in children’s cartoon entertainment or does it just feel like a haphazard cliché riddled endeavor from start to finish?
In a hidden and unseeing world, the anthropomorphic dolls, who have been rejected and cast aside from imperfect physical blemishes on their appearances, live harmoniously in a society called Uglyville. One doll, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), has a joyous optimism about her; waking up every day to with exuberant elation and curiosity for a fabled world beyond their own (i.e. “The Big World”) where children cherish dolls in lifelong companionship; longing for the warmth and affection pleasure. However, despite Uglyville’s chipper mayor Ox (Blake Shelton) advising against the notion of venturing beyond their town’s boundaries, Moxy takes off on an adventure to see what lies beyond, with her friends Ugly Dog (Pitbull), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), and Babo (Gabriel Iglesias). Journeying up the pipes and through some investigation, the gang winds up in new place called the Insatiate of Perfection, a society of human-like dolls made up of elite perfections and run by their egotistical leader Lou (Nick Jonas), who sees Moxy and her friends as imperfections that no child will ever love. Determined to prove Lou wrong and with the aid of Mandy (Janelle Monae), a secretly imperfect doll, Moxy and gang enroll in a program to prove their worth as palpable playthings; providing that it’s not about what’s on the outside but rather inside that counts the most.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I’ve said it before (many times) and I’ll continue to say it, but I do love watching kid’s animated movies. Yes, I’ll admit it…. I am an adult (have been for a while), but I still find kid’s animated movies to my liking. Perhaps it’s the colorful animation and seeing the various style of animation change over the years. Or maybe it is the classic stories that’s full of lighthearted humor and common thematical messages weaving into its narrative. Or maybe it’s the pool of talented voice actors that usually star in the film in populating the variety of character throughout the feature. What can I say…. I am a kid at heart. So (as you can imagine), I’ve seeing plenty of children’s animated movies in my life, with some being quite memorable (mostly ones released under the banners of Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or Illumination Entertainment), but I’ve seen a couple hits found by some smaller animated studios out there. Then, of course, there are releases that have been totally disappointing and really begs the question as to why it was released to begin with (like some live-action features as well). In the end, I’ve always (and will continue to do so) to appreciate animated cartoon movies and look forward to seeing them…. for better or worse.
The latest offering to the cartoon animation is Ugly Dolls, which is what this review is about. I really didn’t hear much about this movie online, so there wasn’t a lot of “buzz” about on the world wide web. Heck, I didn’t even know about the film even existed into I saw the film’s movie trailer online and proceeded to set it several times when I went to go see a kid’s movies (PG rating or below) to my local movie theater. From the various trailers, I surmised that the film would be a colorful and melodical endeavor, with plenty of time devoted to singing and dancing. I knew that it probably won’t beat out any Pixar film (in terms of heartwarming cartoon drama), but I surmise that it would be a fun and cute animated distraction, especially for the young viewers out there. Thus, I decided to finally check out this movie out before it would eventually get pushed out of theaters the summer movie lineup would commence. What did I think of Ugly Dolls? Well, it was somewhere between okay and good. Despite being reinforced with recycled ideas from other similar projects, Ugly Dolls is a colorful and musical induced animated feature that finds its heart and voice in the right place. There’s plenty to like about it, but it’s hardly original or even creatively fun to mask the derivate nature of the film.
Ugly Dolls is directed by Kelly Asbury, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo & Juliet, and Smurfs: The Lost Village. Given his background knowledge in children’s animated movies, Ashbury seems like a favorable choice in directing this movie. To that effect, he succeeds in making Ugly Dolls an upbeat and very kid-friendly / family feature film endeavor for all ages to enjoy. There’s not a whole lot of scary scenes or upsetting imagery in the movie as Asbury keeps the feature very light and made aware for its target audience range, which is more of the “juice box” crowd. Coinciding with that notion, Asbury makes room for plenty of kid-friendly jokes and gags. Some are better than others (i.e. hit or miss), but I did find myself chuckling a few times over some cartoon comedy relief. Additionally, with a runtime of 87 minutes long (roughly one hour and twenty-seven minutes long), Ashbury keeps the flow of the movie on a tight and brisk pace, which (in hindsight) is a pretty good thing as the narrative, despite it’s flaws (more on that below), never gets bogged down in unnecessary side-stories / plots. Also, the film’s themes and commentary messages throughout the narrative is also quite good and delivers quite a compelling array of fundamental lessons to be learned, including anti-bullying, self-confidence, and acceptance (from within and those who are different from the norm). Given those thematical messages, Ugly Dolls succeeds in presenting those well-meaning life lessons within its story; offering up a well-deserved message that’s easy to digest for the young viewers out there.
On its surface presentation, Ugly Dolls is really super colorful and bright, which definitely matches a lot of the film’s various characters and environments quite appealing. Of course, this makes it much easier for young viewers to enjoy the feature and it really does work, making a viewer’s eyes palpable to vibrant color-filled cinematic tale that they are watching. So, while some might think of it as a “gimmick”, I do appreciate the feature’s colorful tone appeal as well as the somewhat “matted” toy / doll look that they give for the film’s characters and various background setting locations. Plus, one of the film’s big highlights is the musical songs that Ugly Dolls has within its movie….and boy they are super catchy and light. While it probably won’t rival anything powerfully and / or thematically like something from Disney’s Frozen or Moana, but they are definitely infectious pop song that you simply can’t help tapping your hand and / or foot while listening to them. Songs like “Couldn’t Be Better”, “All Dolled Up”, and “Unbreakable” certainly demonstrate the catchiness of the film’s musical pop flavor and will have kids singing and dancing along with these sequences.
Despite the colorful palette and catchy musical numbers, problems do arise within the movie; making Ugly Dolls not quite as fresh / palpable as it wants to be. The main problem with the movie is that it feels completely derivate to DreamWorks’s 2016 animated film Trolls. The parallels between the two are uncanny: a bright and colorful animated endeavor, catchy musical numbers, casting musical talents for characters voices, reassuring themes of individuality and being yourself, and a few other ones. Thus, any viewer can see the obvious comparisons between the two films and Ugly Dolls just comes up empty handed than the animated feature it’s trying to emulate. So, it’s Trolls just presented in a little bit of a different way, which is disappointing as I felt that the movie could’ve done so much more with its concept of ugly / rejected dolls and the juxtaposition of how society looks upon them.
In truth, the film’s script, which was penned by Alison Peck with a story by Robert Rodriguez, suffers the greatest and is probably the main reason why Ugly Dolls fails. How so? Well, both the story and script for the movie feels unimaginably derivate (there’s no way around it). The story base is quite familiar, the narrative progression is formulaic, and all the twists and surprises have a lot of “been there, done that” type of feel throughout the movie. So, what does Peck and Rodriguez (as well Ashbury) bring to table with Ugly Dolls? Well, looking beyond the bright colors of animation and catchy bubblegum musical songs, not a whole lot. There’s very little nuances and creative innovation that both the script / story tries to project. Perhaps Asbury (or even Peck and Rodriguez) wanted to keep the film’s narrative simple and / or within the parameters of what’s been done before…. a sort of “don’t rock the boat” with a good idea. I said, the idea for Ugly Dolls is good, but it’s the actual journey throughout the movie is rather unimpressive and feels completely commonplace / recycled from other feature films endeavors in children’s entertainment. Basically, it’s been done before in and done better (told and presented) within other animated features than this; bringing nothing new and / or original to the table….and that’s where the movie falters greatly.
As a minor point of criticism, the feature’s animation is a bit on the lower quality. While I’m not saying that it is deplorable or terrible, but, compared to other animated 2019 movies (i.e. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and Toy Story 4), Ugly dolls looks…. well…. a bit of the uglier side of the animation spectrum. The colors are bright and the textures look good, but it all seems to be on the more seconded hand appeal of kid’s cartoon flicks (not really pushing the boundaries of computer animation). Thus, for better or worse, Ugly Dolls just looks a bit dated….like something from the early 2010s. I know that might sound a bit harsh (maybe I’m just spoiled with animated movies getting better and better in its character / model rendering), but it’s not hard to agree with Ugly Dolls feels a bit subpar in animation.
Along with the bright colors and songs, the voice cast in Ugly Dolls is another saving grace for the movie and definitely has a surprisingly recognizable talents that provide the vocals for all the various characters therein. Naturally, headlining the movie is musical singer / actress Kelly Clarkson, who provides the voice for the film’s main protagonist character of Moxy. Mostly known for her musical career but appearing in From Justin to Kelly (something a bit on the “meh” side) and The Star, Clarkson certainly embodies a lot of the characteristic attributes found in Moxy (plucky / happy go lucky) and certainly projects that within her vocals in bringing Moxy to life. Plus, it also helps that Clarkson carries a lot of musical weight of the movie on her shoulders; finding her singing talents to be pitch perfect to whatever musical iteration is required. The downside is that the predictable character journey that Moxy is formulaic to the letter and doesn’t really deviate beyond several common protagonist clichés. Thus, in the end, Clarkson’s Moxy, while not original in its character build, is still a fundamentally wholesome performance from the talented singer.
Looking beyond Clarkson, the film is filled with plenty of musical talents, especially the ones from singer / actor Nick Jonas, singer Blake Shelton, and singer / actress Janelle Monae in the feature’s secondary character roles. Jonas, known for his movie roles in Camp Rock, Kingdom, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, plays the movie’s main antagonist character of Lou (the mean, conceited, and preppy leader from the town of Perfection) and certainly does a good job in his suave yet spiteful sounding voice that matches exactly what the movie needs from him. wise, Shelton and Monae, known for her roles in Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and Welcome to Marwen, offer up some solid animated performances within their characters of Ox (the mayor of Uglyville) and Mandy (a friendly yet lonely perfect doll). Given their musical backgrounds (much like Clarkson), these three are equally impressive whenever their character is allowed to sing. However, much like Clarkson’s Moxy, all three characters of Lou, Ox, and Mandy are generic within their respective builds (i.e. the bad guy, the leader, and the friendly individual), which is disappointing because I did like the talents behind these characters.
Other characters in the movie, including rapper / singer Pitbull as Ugly Dog, rapper Ice-T as Peggy, comedian / actor Gabriel Iglesias (Magic Mike XXL and The Book of Life) as Babo, actress Wanda Sykes (Over the Hedge and The New Adventures of Old Christine) as Wage, actor Leehom Wong (Forever Young and Blackhat) as Lucky Bat, actress Emma Roberts (Scream Queens and American Horror Story) as Wedgehead, and musical singers Bebe Rexha, Charil XCX, and Lizzo as Tuesday, Kitty, and Lydia, round out the cast in supporting character roles; finding each of them up to task in their respective parts (each one gets a moment in the spotlight to be memorable in the film).
Today’s the day and it couldn’t get better than this as Moxy and her friends’ journey to find their place in “the big world” in the movie Ugly Dolls. Director Kelly Asbury latest film tells of a colorful world of perfectionate beauty in both an individual outward appearance, but also within, which is presented in kid-friendly musical experience that’s quite easy to digest for all ages. While the movie’s derivate story and bland script is riddled with problematic areas, the movie finds its happiness mojo within its colorful palette, lighthearted tone, musical songs, and solid voice acting. To me, it was somewhere between mediocre and okay. It was definitely colorful, the voice talents were great, and the musical was super-catchy, but the film’s narrative really just felt “been there, done that” in a flat and derivate manner. However, the movie’s demographic is meant for the young “juice box” crowd and I think it definitely, despite its flaws, hit its mark. Thus, my recommendation for this film is both an “iffy choice” for the older tweens and adults out there (who probably won’t find Ugly Dolls to their liking) and a solid and favorable “recommended” for the young children out there (who will love its bright colors and infectious songs). In 2018, Hulu streaming services bought the rights to make an Ugly Dolls series (based on this movie) in attempt in expanding upon the feature’s story with a season consisting of 26 episodes. However, with the film not recouping its money at the box office (considered to be a “bomb” with STX Entertainment), that idea remains to be seeing and if it will ever materialize in the near future. In the end, whether you love it or hate it, Ugly Dolls is vibrantly colorful and melodically catchy animated feature for kids. It may not be the brightest and best animated feature film in children’s entertainment, but it’s far from being the worst.
3.0 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice / Recommended)
Released On: May 3rd, 2019
Reviewed On: August 6th, 2019
Ugly Dolls is 87 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic elements and brief action