‘UglyDolls’ Film Review: You’ve Seen This Toy Story Before

A dazzling cast of voice talent — including Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monáe and Nick Jonas — get bogged down in an all-too-familiar kid cartoon

Last Updated: May 1, 2019 @ 7:01 AM

Doubling as both a colorful recycling bin for tropes and ideas from a variety of preexisting children animated features and a casting session for “The Voice”‘s next batch of hosts, Kelly Asbury’s plush-inspired film “UglyDolls” is underscored by a well-intentioned message of self-acceptance, even if the delivery vehicle is unremarkable.

Developed from a story by Robert Rodriguez and written by newcomer Alison Peck, this musical adventure about misshapen plush dolls that were rejected by quality control in a toy factory is as energetic as its mechanics are perplexing. Sure, one must give in to the fantastical elements in films of this kind, but some of the plot details in this mashup production (“Toy Story” + “Monsters Inc.” + a generic stage show) are as visibly defective as its heroes but much less huggable.

Singer Kelly Clarkson, who herself has been on the receiving end of judgmental comments about her physical appearance throughout her career, voices Moxy, the adventurous pink doll with a bow-like protuberance on her head. A resident of Uglyville, a place where plushies with one-of-a-kind characteristics live, Moxy dreams of traveling to the human world and being loved by a child. Determined to make this a reality, she recruits her closest ugly friends and sails on a quest for answers.

Aside from comedians Gabriel Iglesias and Wanda Sykes, the rest of the cast could mirror the lineup at a music awards show: Blake Shelton, Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, Leehom Wang. Pitbull (as Moxy’s best pal Ugly Dog, making a couple bilingual jokes and performing one of his own hits), and Janelle Monáe — the latter playing Mandy, a doll with bad eyesight but a great voice — rise above the chorus in the star-studded voice cast.

When the pack arrives in Perfection, the town where dolls who are up to standards receive final training before heading out to their respective children (the actual process is never fully addressed), the Uglyville-ites are met with rejection from humanoid dolls trained to aspire for immaculate presentation. Like most of the movie, this setting is not subtle about the importance of individuality and the detrimental effects of striving to fit in. A washing machine is harnessed as punishment for dolls that fail to stay clean.

Having fun with the over-the-top nature of the part, pop singer Nick Jonas voices their leader, Lou, a pristine doll best described as an older version of the title infant in the “Boss Baby,” mixed with the malevolence of Chucky from “Child’s Play,” the megalomania of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear from “Toy Story 3,” and all the markings of the money-making motivational techniques of Tony Robbins. “Pretty makes perfect,” Lou constantly repeats as his superficial motto. Undeterred by Lou’s harshness, Moxy perseveres and catches the attention of Mandy, one of Lou’s henchwomen, who sympathizes with her plight; as expected, most of these developments are expressed in musical form.

Songs vary in quality and resonance, but somehow in multiple instances it almost feels like Moxy is going to breakout and sing “When She Loved Me,” Jesse’s song from “Toy Story 2.” It’s obvious how difficult it is to make a movie about sentient toys pursuing children’s love in a post-“Toy Story” world: A scene near the end when the UglyDolls have to rescue one of their own rings nearly copy-pasted from Pixar’s flagship franchise.

Among the many spontaneous musical outbursts, the track “All Dolled Up,” when Moxy and crew opt for a makeover, stands out as perhaps the one that’s slightly more complex than the others, because its lyrics are much darker than the lively melody that scores them. Mandy sings about choosing your clothing not for you but for who you want to be, to hide your imperfections, to transform yourself and hide who you truly are.

The climatic song “Unbreakable,” a duet between Clarkson and Monáe, hopes to reach “Let It Go” sing-along status but likely won’t. Still, it’s a sweet, if not very original, power ballad about not listening to the haters and knowing the person who you really are inside. Again, it’s nothing out of the ordinary, but the sparkling mirror dance the characters do is kind of charming.

For a feature that’s all about celebrating uniqueness and defying homogeneity, the animation itself is bright but not stylistically inventive. The pretty dolls look exactly like all children do in most CG animated films: same head shape, same smoothness, same eyes. The point is for them to look alike, and that’s evident, but unfortunately they also resemble plenty of characters from other releases from multiple studios.

There are a couple textural elements that are somewhat interesting craft-wise, such as the felt material from which the ugly dolls are made or the yarn hair of the children-like figures. Neither of these are mind-blowing, but merely nice touches to give the movie’s world a little more cohesiveness, something that it generally lacks.

“UglyDolls” won’t stand the test of time as a memorable animated film. Besides not being visually singular, it also falls in the trap of being too self-referential and having a desperate need to be cool and sassy. Still, at times, it does hit some relevant emotional notes. At the end of the second act, when Uglyville hits a slump and sadness has taken over, it’s clear that the inhabitants of this town for cheerful misfits only become aware that the world outside thinks they are ugly when others point out their flaws. If only the rest of the film was as insightful.