You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘UglyDolls’

An impish dance-pop fairy tale that feels like 'Trolls Lite' uses the Ugly Dolls to salute the power of being your beautiful ugly — individual — self.

Kelly Asbury
Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe, Blake Shelton, Pitbull, Wanda Sykes, Gabriel Iglesias, Wang Leehom, Emma Roberts.
Release Date:
May 3, 2019

Rated PG  Running time: 87 MIN.

Official Site: https://www.uglydolls.com/

In “UglyDolls,” an air-popped animated musical fairy tale about learning to embrace the ugly — that is, ordinary (that is, extraordinary) — specimen most of us are, the title plush toys are monochromatic fuzzy-felt factory rejects who get tossed off the assembly line for one reason or another. Each has a flaw that fails to meet the corporate standards of eye-pleasing symmetry and cuddliness. Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), the movie’s heroine, is a rambunctious blob of pinkness whose problem is her teeth (she’s got three, unevenly spaced, with a prominent gap). Ox (Blake Shelton), a rabbity green customer, has an X where his left eye should be — though at least he’s meant to have another eye. Ugly Dog (Pitbull), a cyclops canine mascot, has one glaring yellow peeper at the center of his forehead. And Wage, voiced by Wanda Sykes, sports two ungainly lower incisors, an homage, I assume, to the gargoyle voiced by Sykes on Disney Junior’s “Vampirina.”

The Ugly Dolls, in their just-ugly-enough-to-be-an-individual way, are no one’s idea of a perfect seamless prototype. But you couldn’t say the same thing for the movie. It’s based on an insanely popular line of plush toys launched in 2001, and in the years since there have been any number of kiddie film franchises that this one studiously imitates. The main one (which predates the launch) is “Toy Story” and its sequels. The characters in “UglyDolls” live in Uglyville, a Dogpatch-meets-Whoville shantytown for stuffie rejects, where most of the dolls accept their outcast fate. But Moxy has never relinquished her dream of going to the Big World and becoming the cherished plaything of a human child; that, and only that, will complete her. It’s a desire that couldn’t be a more direct echo of Tom Hanks’ Woody and his eager, loving, but needy relationship to the kid he belongs to.

“UglyDolls” is “Toy Story” meets “Trolls” meets “The Smurfs” meets the Island of Misfit Toys. The “Trolls” connection is particularly telling. The whole notion of making the film into a spangly dance-pop musical in rainbow colors, with prominent music stars as the leads (in this case, Clarkson and Nick Jonas — in “Trolls,” it was Justin Timberlake), feels liberally borrowed from that movie. And even more than that, “Trolls,” one of the most splendid animated features of the last decade, had its own far more visually (and emotionally) sophisticated version of the Ugly Dolls: Prince Gristle and Bridget, the buck-toothed Bergens-in-love voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Zooey Deschanel. “UglyDolls” is “Trolls Lite,” and the way things work I have no doubt we’ll be seeing a movie in the next few years that’s “UglyDolls Lite.”

Yet this is still a winsomely appealing and joke-happy bauble for kiddies. Recently, catching up with “Missing Link,” I thought: It’s not badly done, but what small child wants to identify with a crusty frowning British adventurer like the hero of that film? “UglyDolls,” apart from the knowingly two-dimensional punk charm of its title toys, has been staged as a playground with moving parts. It’s the first animated feature produced by STX’s Family division, and the director, Kelly Asbury, coming off mediocrities like “Gnomeo & Juliet” and “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” here adopts a looser, funkier attitude. The movie isn’t aiming too far over the heads of 5-year-olds (and God knows, it’s not Pixar or the Spider-Verse), but for what it is, it works.

Five of the Ugly Dolls make it through a portal, but where they land isn’t the Big World. It’s the Institute of Perfection, a kind of Ayn Rand academy for finely chiseled tailored dolls with pinpoint noses to learn how to be the flawless specimens they think they were meant to be. At least, that’s the philosophy of the doll who rules the place. His name is Lou, and as voiced by Nick Jonas he’s a terrific contradiction: a pop-star guru who’s really a dictator, and an icon of standardized beauty who has more self-doubt than he lets on. The film’s best visual flourish is Lou’s hair: It’s a honey-er shade of pale, with each golden strand falling, like a perfectly cooked piece of pasta, into a pompadour from heaven. But Lou’s outfit — a preppie suit with handkerchief — is enough to tell you that he’s not to be trusted. Everything about the Institute of Perfection is uniform, down to the parochial-school dresses that the female dolls (including a trio of mean girls) wear.

The satire, even on a kiddie level, could have been a touch more biting. You wish that the filmmakers, in smiting overly fetishized children’s toys, had tweaked the American Girl Doll mystique. That said, the sincerity with which “UglyDolls” pits unblemished conformity against ungainly soul is touching — and, yes, instructive — in all the right ways. The vocal performances really register, from Clarkson’s life-force ebullience to Shelton’s saddened drawl to Pitbull’s street bravura. As Mandy, the Institute girl who’s trying to hide the fact that she needs glasses, Janelle Monáe captures the inner conflict of nice girls who don’t want to be mean but feel that’s the role that’s been set out for them. The message of “UglyDolls” — be yourself! — may not count as social justice, but it’s one that kids now need to hear from pop culture. And “UglyDolls” offers its own variation on it. The movie says that ugly is beautiful and that too much fixation on beauty is ugly. It says that the two should meet in the middle, a merger both you and your mirror can feel good about.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'UglyDolls'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, April 29, 2019. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: An STX Entertainment release of an STX Family, Reel FX Animation Studios, Alibaba Pictures production. Producers: Jane Hartwell, Robert Rodriguez, Oren Aviv.

Crew: Director: Kelly Asbury. Screenplay: Alison Peck. Editors: Julie Rogers, Nolan Southerland. Music: Christopher Lennertz.

With: Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe, Blake Shelton, Pitbull, Wanda Sykes, Gabriel Iglesias, Wang Leehom, Emma Roberts.

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Racks Up Solid $33 Million Debut, 'Goldfinch' Bombs

    “Hustlers” rolled in the Benjamins this weekend, collecting $33.2 million when it debuted in 3,250 North American theaters. Boosted by rave reviews and stellar word of mouth, “Hustlers” beat expectations and now ranks as the best start for an STX film, along with the biggest live-action opening weekend for stars Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. [...]

  • German Cinema Is Diverse, But Is

    German Cinema Is Varied, But Is It Too Risk Averse?

    One of the strengths of German cinema is its diversity, says Simone Baumann, managing director of the national film promotion agency German Films. As well as the three films at Toronto directed by female German helmers, there was also German filmmaker Thomas Heise’s documentary film essay “Heimat Is a Space in Time.” Then there were [...]

  • Female Filmmakers in Germany Make Progress

    Female Filmmakers Surge Forward in Germany, But Still Face Obstacles

    Four feature films by German filmmakers screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and three of them were directed by women – Angela Schanelec’s “I Was at Home, But…,” winner of the Berlinale’s best director prize, Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” and Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” the latter two both starring Nina Hoss. Germany’s Oscar entry this [...]

  • Bull

    Annie Silverstein's 'Bull' Takes Top Awards, Robert Pattinson Starrer 'The Lighthouse' Wins Jury Prize at Deauville

    Annie Silverstein’s feature debut “Bull” swept three awards at the 45th Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Prize, the Revelation Prize for best first film and the Critics’ Prize. “Bull,” a portrait of a rebellious teenage girl from South Texas, world premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard and marks Silverstein’s follow up to her [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content