UglyDolls: No Alibi, by David Bax
UglyDolls‘ voice cast leans heavily toward people known more for singing than for acting. There’s Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae, Blake Shelton, Pitbull, Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, Lizzo… to name just a couple. Given that this new animated, positive-message movie is a musical, then, you’d think that at least the songs would be good. But they’re just as flat and generally agreeable as the rest of the thing.
Moxy (Clarkson) is a fuzzy doll in the shape of a sort of uncategorizable thing who lives in a town called Uglyville with a bunch of other misshapen dolls. She dreams of one day fulfilling what she believes to be a doll’s purpose, being chosen by a child to go out into the “big world” and devoting herself to making that child happy. Just when she thinks she’s found a way to do so, along comes Lou (Jonas), a perfect doll who informs Moxy that she and her friends–all the citizens of Uglyville–are factory rejects and will never go to the big world. True to her name, Moxy does not take this lying down.
In recent years, other films have portrayed sentient consumer goods as worshipful of those (meaning us) who intend to purchase and make use of them. In these cases, from the facile Sausage Party to the heartfelt Cloud Atlas, this dynamic has not ended well for the products. Without giving away the ending, UglyDolls takes a more agnostic approach that you may find worth unpacking or you might figure is just a good way to leave the door open, literally (but no spoilers), for a sequel.
UglyDolls is not here, of course, to examine or critique religion. Its actual purpose is a much simpler but more noble one. Namely, it wants each member of its young audience to recognize that everyone feels as different and insecure as they do and that our uniqueness can define and strengthen us instead of ostracize us. It’s a pretty unassailable message, especially in the film’s best musical number, a scoffing anti-makeover montage. Anyone who wanted to take a child to see it for these reasons will get no grief from me.
If, however, I catch you cracking up at the gratingly terrible jokes, I might think a little less of you. Comedian Patton Oswalt once did a bit about a time he was asked to do script punch-up on an animated film that was all but finished, meaning all they wanted him to do was write lines that could be shouted by offscreen characters. That was over a decade ago but, if UglyDolls is any evidence, the practice persists in Hollywood. At least half of the one-liners here are spoken by characters whose mouths you can’t see moving. At the very least, though, props are due to the original screenwriters for fitting in a blatant Miller’s Crossing reference. That’s an oddity that happens right onscreen and it’s my favorite part of the whole movie.
UglyDolls does finally find some inspiration in its action-packed final act, largely set in a booby-trapped facsimile of a dollhouse. The virtual production design, which has been rewarding throughout, fully delivers in this section. I only wish director Kelly Asbury and his team had been motivated to excel beyond the basic (thought important) platitudes of their movie sooner.