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UglyDolls Movie Review

UglyDolls (2019) movie poster UglyDolls

Theatrical Release: May 3, 2019 / Running Time: 87 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Kelly Asbury / Writers: Alison Peck (screenplay), Robert Rodriguez (story), David Horvath, Sun-Min Kim (Uglydoll characters)

Voice Cast: Kelly Clarkson (Moxy), Janelle Monáe (Mandy), Blake Shelton (Ox), Wanda Sykes (Wage), Gabriel Iglesias (Babo), Wang Leehom (Lucky Bat), Bebe Rexha (Tuesday), Charli XCX (Kitty), Lizzo (Lydia), Nick Jonas (Lou), Pitbull (Uglydog), Emma Roberts (Wedgehead), Jane Lynch (Scanner, Electronic Female Voice), Rob Riggle (Exposition Robot), Kelly Asbury (Gibberish Cat, Oliver, Chef, Buttons)

Songs: "Today's the Day", "Couldn't Be Better", "Today's the (Perfect) Day", "The Ugly Truth", "The Uglier Truth", "You Make My Dreams", "All Dolled Up", "Unbreakable", "Oh My Doll", "Bon Bon", "Broken and Beautiful", "The Big Finale", "Girl in the Mirror"

 

In the likely event you don't already know, UglyDolls is a movie based on a line of plush toys that were introduced in 2001 and awarded the Specialty Toy of the Year award back in 2006.
That was the year when just about every studio around got in on the computer animation craze and also the first year that being a CG-animated family comedy stopped being enough to guarantee commercial success.

UglyDolls looks like it was made in 2006, but even back then it would have already missed its chance to be a novelty or marquee attraction. In 2019, it looks hopelessly behind the times, more like a contractually obligated release than the launch of a formidable animation division at fledgling mini-major STX Films.

UglyDolls opens in a place called Uglyville, where literal names are all the rage (that's about as close as this film gets to a chuckle). Our pink protagonist Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) dreams of the day she'll get picked to go to the Big World. It is apparently every Ugly Doll's dream, to go there and be assigned a child to entertain. If you fear we're veering into Toy Story territory, you can relax. That is as close as this comes to being derivative of Pixar's flagship franchise.

Lucky Bat, Moxy, and Ox try to find a place where they belong in "UglyDolls."

Upon the advice of the reticent Lucky Bat, who relies of a fortune cookie fortune and the haziest of tea leaf readings, Moxy decides to venture into the tunnel from which new Ugly Dolls come. She persuades a number of colorful, celebrity-voiced, slightly abnormal creatures to accompany her on this adventure. They include the trepidatious Wage (Wanda Sykes), lime green newbie Wedgehead (Emma Roberts), and at least one that resembles a cat (but not Gibberish Cat, who lives up to his name in a couple of indiscernable lines).

Instead of getting assigned their kids, the gang finds themselves at a place called the Institute of Perfection, which is run by the widely-adored and unabashedly superficial Lou (Nick Jonas). He is very derisive towards these unexpected visitors as are the girls who swoon at his every word. Lou doesn't think these misfit toys have any place at his institute of high standards, but he gives them a chance to prove him wrong.

There's no need for me to say anything more. The narrative here would be thin at 20 minutes, the time it would need to fill a half-hour of commercial television. At 80 or so minutes, the screenplay is anemic, trite, hackneyed, and belabored. There is no shred of subtlety here, as Lou espouses a line of thinking to which the Ugly Dolls, in theory anyway, are an abomination. They're really not that ugly as far as children's dolls go (hence their apparent success).

The superficial Lou (voiced by Nick Jonas) serves as Institute of Perfection head and the dreamy antagonist of "UglyDolls."

What is hideous is the animation, which is the work of Reel FX Animation Studios, the company behind that other Día de Muertos movie, The Book of Life (2014), and the instantly-forgotten Thanksgiving time travel comedy Free Birds (2013).
I mean I guess "hideous" may be harsh, if we're still judging the film by 2006 standards. But we've all seen dozens of animated films that have blown us away visually. The types of comparisons invited -- to Pixar's Monsters movies and Warner Bros.' Lego ones -- bring instant embarrassment here. The character design and environments are just as uninspired as the voice cast, which seems to be comprised of no one who was among the filmmakers' top thirty or forty choices.

Twelve of the voice actors get their names on the poster, which is almost always a discouraging sign for an animated film. The cast leans heavily on musicians, with the likes of Janelle Monáe, Blake Shelton, Charli XCX, Lizzo, and, most distinctly, Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull, all on board. Yes, that is a good indication that this is a musical, though the songs by Christopher Lennertz and Glenn Slater (Alan Menken's lyricist on Disney's Tangled and Home on the Range) are so devoid of wit and meaning that applying that genre label feels generous. They're mostly original songs and mostly performed by Clarkson and sometimes also Monáe. There's also the a cappella group Pentatonix performing Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams" for no apparent reason.

I used to pride myself on seeing every computer-animated film released to American theaters. Though the task has gotten more difficult in recent years, I've still seen the vast majority of them and am well aware of what's out there, not just the Pixar masterpieces and high-profile DreamWorks and Illumination efforts, but everything from middling Sony Pictures Animation works to generally underwhelming one-off productions like The Nut Job and Norm of the North. I'm telling you this not to boast, but to make it clear that I am as qualified to judge this movie as any critic. And thus it is neither lightly nor hyperbolically that I declare UglyDolls one of the very worst animated movies I've ever encountered. Without a doubt, it's the worst I've seen in a theater and I doubt that the scattering of mostly unengaged, unresponsive young people at my screening would strongly disagree.

While you might assume such an underwhelming production is the work of people not versed in the film business, an Oogieloves kind of deal, UglyDolls actually credits its story to Robert Rodriguez. Yes, that Robert Rodriguez, who directed El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn, and the Sin City movies. When he's not making adult action movies, Rodriguez dabbles in family fare. He wrote and directed all four Spy Kids movies, among other less lucrative, kid-oriented flicks like Shorts and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D. Rodriguez was attached to direct this some time after the project changed hands from Illumination (Universal's Despicable Me and Minions creators) to STX. Instead, Rodriguez ends up with producing and story credits. The screenplay is attributed to complete newcomer Alison Peck, while directing duties belonged to Kelly Asbury, a 35-year veteran of animation who directed Gnomeo & Juliet and, with others, Shrek 2 and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Directors of animated films rarely command the recognition that their live-action brethren get, even when their films are beloved. Perhaps that means we also shouldn't overstate the blame that must go to the undoubtedly qualified Asbury.

But it doesn't really matter who's to blame. UglyDolls is one bad movie, as short on creativity and wit as any other released to over 3,000 theaters (and its questionable anticipated 3,600-theater count is on the order of Frozen). But I suspect that people, even the undiscerning ones seemingly targeted here, will recognize that much and choose to stay away, which is good for art, but bad for STX, which has the none too promising Playmobil: The Movie slated to open at the end of summer.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Avengers: EndgameMissing LinkShazam!DumboCaptain Marvel
Directed by Kelly Asbury: Gnomeo & JulietSpirit: Stallion of the Cimarron | Reel FX Animation: Free Birds
The Angry Birds MovieThe Lego Movie

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Reviewed May 2, 2019.



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