I’m going to be completely honest up front and tell you that movies like UGLY DOLLS are not my cup of tea. When I found out what I was going to see, I mentally ground my teeth and banged my head against an invisible wall. Firstly, it is a kid’s movie. Having never been a kid, these are not my wheelhouse at all. Secondly, it’s not horror, it has a small horror element – the concept of dolls being recycled in a fiery furnace which is close to the concept of Hell and is definitely murder in the context in which it is framed. However, it is a genuine and smart kid’s movie that celebrates the concepts of acceptance, kindness, and compassion for others and their differences that has a whack at our culture’s concepts of beauty and celebrity. It also has Pitbull and Lizzo in it, which definitely increased my admiration for the movie as a whole.
My problem with most movies or other entertainment made for children is that they are generally simplistic and shoddy. Most of them rely on bright primary colors and repetitive songs to hook kids and, ask any parent, they are very successful. However, I think kids should not be talked down to in their entertainment and should be encouraged to use their developing brains as much as possible. Children should be challenged, not talked down to by cynical adults. I would consider UGLY DOLLS mostly a success on that level. Kids may not have an adult level of sophistication, but they are much sharper than people think.
In Uglytown, the perpetually effervescent and hopeful Moxy, voiced by Kelly Clarkson, wakes and shares her belief with her doll friends that it is only a matter of time until she gets her chance to find her human and the love and acceptance that she craves, despite being told that she is ugly and therefore undeserving of it. Her friends, including the Mayor of Uglytown – Ox, voiced by Blake Shelton, attempt to gently discourage her as they love her and are unwilling to see her get her heart broken by the world itself and its realities. In truth, Uglytown seems like a bit of a paradise for these misfit toys. They have happiness, friendship, and everything else they could want, but Moxy dreams of having what she sees as a toy’s destiny. She is not willing to settle for less, even though less is still pretty good. For someone who has consistently been told she was undeserving and ugly, she still has a very strong belief in herself.
A new doll arrives and while one of her friends is trying to talk her out of her cherished dream, Moxy gets the idea that she must go and secure her rightful future as a beloved doll. She talks with her closest friends, Babo – Gabriel Iglesias, Ugly Bat – Wang Leehom, Wage – Wanda Sykes, and Ugly Dog – PITBULL (!!) into leaving Uglyville to look for the “Big World” on the way to finding her human. While exploring the pipes that bring new dolls to Uglyville, they stumble upon Perfection, a rival town where perfect dolls are trained for the real world and submit to a Gauntlet to prove that they are up to the task. Lou is a celebrity type and the leader of Perfection, voiced by Nick Jonas as a shallow and mean spirited jerk who attacks the vulnerable under the guise of trying to teach them how to be perfect, and he, after a suitable musical number, denies the Ugly Dolls the chance to compete, then cagily decides to allow them to fail while he mercilessly attacks their egos while “training” them.
The Dolls find that one of the perfect minions of Lou, Mandy – Janelle Monáe, wears glasses and hides her “lack of perfection” from Lou and her friends in fear. She is kindly and sympathetic to the Dolls because she understands what it is like to be afraid to not conform. Lou continues to torture the Dolls in an attempt to make them give up, but they simply bounce back every time. Exasperated and afraid that they might succeed, Lou sends his three Spy Girls, Tuesday – Babe Rexha, Kitty – Charlie XCX (!), and Lydia – Lizzo (!!!) to kidnap Ox and bring him back to Perfection and tell the truth about Uglyville and end Moxy’s campaign once and for all.
I should also mention that UGLY DOLLS is also a musical, with characters voiced mostly by famous singers who are not necessarily actors. Despite this, most of the performances are charming and range from workmanlike to pretty darn good. I recognized Wanda Sykes and Pitbull (!!!) immediately and liked them quite a lot. Janelle Monáe has a gentle and sweet presence that translates well for this character. There really wasn’t any character’s voice acting that I can really quibble with and I think that overall it was very well cast from the standpoint of singing and acting, which are two separate disciplines. The songs are pretty much musical theater quality, and while they aren’t my thing, they could easily do well on radio and the charts.
The movie was directed by Kelly Asbury who directed Shrek Two and Gnomeo and Juliet, with sensitivity, produced by Jane Hartwell, The Croods, and Robert Rodriguez, yes, that Robert Rodriguez, with a story by Robert Rodriguez and screenplay by Alison Peck.
The movie is based on a line of toys and while I could be cynical and roll my eyes at this, the fact remains that the ending of the movie made me cry. Yes, I will admit it. I cried at the Doll movie. It was me and a small child, next to her mom, sobbing quietly in my row. I have a finely tuned emotional meter and when I feel something is real, I cry. It was only a few tears, but UGLY DOLLS got me.
A movie that can bring real emotion and feeling is a movie that well worth the time and good for your kids and adults. UGLY DOLLS is above average for the sub-genre of kids entertainment and is good for developing minds and hearts. Even adults could learn something from it. UGLY DOLLS arrives in theaters this Friday, May 3rd.