14 June 2024

Film Review – UglyDolls (2019)

You can forgive, or perhaps even grow to love, a movie that exists primarily to sell a truck load of kids’ toys, if it achieves, or at least strives to some greatness beyond its status as a very long advert. Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s first Lego movie certainly did that, as did Chris McKay’s Lego Batman movie to a large extent.

The bulk of the very worst offenders in this micro genre have traditionally been cheap, straight to video fodder, squeezing the absolute minimum in creativity out of the likes of: Barbie, My Little Pony, Hot Wheels and the presumably little seen Tamagotchi Movie. Bigger budget efforts like the Transformers series have, perhaps, attempted to elevate themselves above their plastic origins, although without little creative success and oddities like the superlative Toy Story franchise features many genuine toys, but plainly transcends any notion that it exists to flog some plastic tat to ungrateful children.

It is possible, though, to craft something using only a line of best-selling playthings as inspiration. It’s disappointing then, but maybe not surprising, that UglyDolls, spinning off a set of oddball plush toys, hasn’t managed to escape the shackles of its £15.99, in a dustbin in three years, chewed by the dog origins.

The starting-point is a line of “ugly” dolls that exude a slightly alternative kitsch appeal. In reality, the dolls themselves are not particularly ugly in any way. In fact, they have a simplistic beauty to them that’s reminiscent of Miyazaki’s Tortoro or Dick Bruna’s Miffy, but clearly eschewing traditional notions of unattainable beauty present in the Bratz dolls or the dysmorphic nightmare, Barbie. You can see why they would appeal, even help, youngsters worried about living up to impossible standards. The dolls themselves riff on the idea established by British 80s TV favourite: The Raggy Dolls, reassuringly not “perfect” dolls who, just like you and me, have their flaws and foibles, but are encouraged to embrace them nonetheless.

In UglyDolls, the titular dolls live in Uglyville, a cardboard paradise of absolute joy and harmony. The dolls, you see, are ignorant of their status as reject dolls, eliminated from the production line before they presumably offend the tastes of any child unfortunate to unwrap them on Christmas morning. Chief among equals is Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) who has, somewhat confusingly, an innate desire to find her chosen child owner, despite the fact that the rest of her neighbours seem unaware of their own doll-ness. Spurred on by this desire, she escapes Uglyville only to find herself back on the production line and surrounded by “perfect” dolls waiting to be bought – all simulacra of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s prissy manipulator in Cruel Intentions – and led by Nick Jonas’ head boy Lou. Lou tells Moxy and her friends that they will need to be totally perfect if they hope to be chosen by a child and, for the first time, they strive to be something they are not in the name of subjective beauty.

Despite an unambiguously body-positive message, there’s not a great deal to enjoy here. It’s bright and lively, with a lovely velvety-plush aesthetic, but it’s also formulaic and hyperactively cloying. Comedy-wise, it’s instantly annoying, with Pitbull and Ice-T outstaying their welcomes as an anthropomorphic dog and flying unicorn respectively, within the first ten seconds of the house lights going down.

It’s repeatedly sensitive, but it’s sensitive in a “you look great, don’t worry what people think and don’t forget to buy these for your kids” way. Despite the good intentions, you rarely shake the feeling that any of this has been done for any reason other than to shift units.

Chris Banks | [rating=2]

Animation, Adventure | USA, 2019 | U| STX Entertainment | Kelly Asbury | Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe, Pitbull, Emma Roberts, Ice-T

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