UglyDolls is an animated musical adventure directed by Kelly Asbury and written by Alison Peck. On its face this is an interesting pairing. Asbury is an animation veteran who has had a career stretching back to 1985’s The Black Cauldron, where he was an in-between artist. Since then he’s been a part of many great films. Alison Peck, is nowhere near as tested. She has one previous credit for producing a short film titled The Mermaid and that’s it. This seems to be her first screenplay. There is one more interesting name among the crew a Story credit given to one Robert Rodriguez, fresh off of directing Ailta: Battle Angel. So we have two film industry veterans in Rodriguez and Asbury, one new writer, Peck, with what seems to be her first script, and a superstar musical cast including the likes of Pitbull, Kelly Clarkson, Lizzo, Janelle Monae, Blake Shelton, and Nick Jonas.
The movie itself has been kicked down the road for 8 years now; Illumination first acquired the film rights to Uglydolls in 2011. In 2015 it was reported that STX Entertainment was expanding into animation with their first film being Uglydolls. Two years later, they got Robert Rodriguez on to direct, produce, and write, though that didn’t last long. They secured a release date, May 10th, which they moved up to the 3rd to avoid competing with Detective Pikachu. Then throughout the year of 2018, they got a new director, a new writer, and began leaking the cast one drop at a time, first Pitbull, then Clarkson, then Jonas… which is a weird way of promoting a film. Now after 8 years, we finally have Uglydolls! It’s a mess… yet a highly strategic one.
The first thing you should know about Uglydolls is that this movie was not made for American Audiences. It’s more in the vein of something like “The Great Wall” the historical sci-fi epic starring Matt Damon that, while doing abysmal numbers domestically, earned 83% of its total gross internationally. This, of course, was always the plan.
The industry as a whole has of course taken notice, some films have made it part of the strategy to play directly to the Chinese box office, even if it means flopping in the States. Needless to say, when I saw that STX had signed a multiyear deal with Huayi Brothers, The Chinese film studio, record label, movie theater chain, television production company, and talent agency responsible for bringing Warcraft to Chinese audiences (Warcraft made 49.2% of its total gross in the Chinese market) the same year they announced Uglydolls, I was more than a little suspicious. When I heard STX was partnering up with Alibaba Pictures, China’s largest film company, I definitely had an idea what was going on. They were betting on China to pull Uglydolls past the Box office finish line.
The second thing you need to know about Uglydolls, is that this isn’t just a movie. It’s a full scale multimedia assault. It’s an internationally distributed film, based on a Non Narrative Intellectual Property, meaning the dolls, ugly as they may be, are not attached to any existing storyline, which is to say they’re perfect for merchandising. STX linked up with Hasbro, the largest toy manufacturer on the planet, to handle this specific aspect of the rollout. They have a television series set to stream on Hulu, Mobile Games and, an album chock full of generic pop songs sung by easily recognizable pop stars. All their bases are covered. I mean, the movie isn’t good but, this stopped being about the movie a long time ago.
Uglydolls easily could have followed the footsteps of its non-narrative I.P. counterparts. The Lego Movie, Trolls and, The Emoji Movie, were all examples of the latest industry craze, all done at different levels of skill and quality. Uglydolls, falls somewhere behind The Emoji Movie and shows how this storyline can go terribly wrong.
So let’s get into the actual movie. It’s 91 minutes long, just past an hour and a half, and it somehow manages to be too long and too short at the same time. It accomplishes this by completely skipping its first act, instead opting to open with a song explaining the specific disposition of the main character. Moxie (Kelly Clarkson), wants a child to play with her, she believes in a magical place where toys and children are destined to be together. But as she’s explaining her dream to the other dolls, they don’t believe her. After Moxie pieces together that toys are being brought into Uglyville through a pipe, so heading through the pipe must lead somewhere, she enlists her friends to travel with her to the Institute of Perfection, led by Lou (Nick Jonas). Lou is the best designed and written character in the film. Lou runs a perfection school based around keeping the dolls out of the washing machine. The dolls attempt to prove to Lou that they can pass his final test, known as the gauntlet, thereby proving that they deserve to be loved by children the same as any toy.
So, the positives, there are a few ideas that, while not fully explored or developed, would have been great, if they were.
The first is actually linked to a negative aspect of the movie; the music is painfully pop centric. Lou’s villain song, which is the best one because he’s the best #LouDidNothingWrong, is in the same vein as Bo Burnham’s “Repeat Stuff” a song that pretty masterfully goes over the sick capitalist intentions behind pop music, teen magazines, and other elements of pop culture that thrive off of the insecurities of teenagers and young people. Lou’s song is very similar, laying out a pretty terrifying premise, the powerful decide what perfection is, what perfection looks like and, what the punishment will be if you don’t conform.
This is an unfortunate and unfair truth that fits perfectly into a system of capitalism that is looking to profit regardless of the effect on the mental state of the consumer. Which is a pretty heavy concept for adult viewers with children who are expected to purchase these toys after the film…
This is slightly expanded upon when after hearing the truth, that all the inhabitants of Uglyville are rejects of the assembly line, they slip into a collective depression. When we are first introduced to the town, they are perfectly happy; they haven’t been introduced to these oppressive societal norms. Very similar to the “Blue eyes, Brown eyes” experiment conducted by Jane Elliott, when you have been granted a position of authority, as Lou has, as Elliot had, it is horrifyingly easy to impose a hierarchy based on anything. In Elliot’s case it was eye color, in Lou’s case it’s a vaguely specific idea of perfection, as he makes clear in the song, “If you want someone to love ya. Babe, you gotta look like me… If not, let me hit you with the bottom line
Got to measure up or you won’t get eternal bliss” is it on the nose, yeah. But it works. Especially when you see Lou’s design, which is perfect by the way, the blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin, perfect little nose in an adorable suit and tie? He’s good looking enough to make you think; yeah this guy’s got a point.
The genre of pop music is perfectly suited to push this message, if it’s the genre of the villain. That’s the first major problem with this movie, everyone is singing pop music. When I saw the list of singers attached to this film, I’m going to list them for emphasis (Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae, Blake Shelton, Wang Leehom, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, and Lizzo) I thought, “Wow, what a mix of genres.” A little country, some R&B, some pop, Power pop, and even potentially some Rock. Surely a musical centered on telling children that it’s okay to be different would allow for this message to be represented in the music choices. I guess you have to sound a certain way in order to be marketable. Very off message guys. It was painful to hear Monae shoehorned into these poorly written empowerment earworms, after her last album “Dirty Computer” did so well at making these. The actual score of the film was mysteriously absent in parts, many scenes are dead quiet outside of dialogue being spoken, it sounded unfinished, like the music is supposed to be there but isn’t. When the music does decide to show up, it’s uninspired and unmemorable.
But, at the risk of belaboring the point, the sung songs were not written by the artists who sing them. Remember, at no level was this film made to be of any quality. It’s one piece of a multimedia assault. The songs were written by Christopher Lennertz, and Glenn Slater. Who use quite a bit of music, without fully utilizing their own vocal talent. Many songs on the soundtrack never actually appear in the movie. Don’t buy tickets to Uglydolls if you were excited to hear a banger from Lizzo or XCX or Rexha, though their characters are a good bit of comic relief they aren’t used for much outside of that. So why are they here?
Uglydolls is 91 minutes long, with 20 minutes of music. This means around 21% of the film is sung music. Disney’s Aladdin (1997) is the same length, yet only spends 13% of its runtime on songs. This leaves Aladdin with more time spent developing the characters and moving the plot forward organically. Lion King (runtime 89min) is very similar, only spending 16% of its runtime on songs. The quality of the songs is obviously the main distinguishing factor here but, I thought it was interesting to look at how the classics allocated time. It seems many classic Disney musicals actually don’t prioritize music as much as spoken dialogue.
Many of the songs written here are filled with clichés so overused it’s astonishing. The big set piece moment is the song
“Unbreakable” which is probably exactly what you expect it to be but, more aggressive and pointed. Lyrics like:
“Show ’em who you are. Show ’em that you’re strong. Show ’em that you know where you belong. Open up their eyes, Force ’em all to see, Let ’em know you are and you’ll always be… Unbreakable Unbreakable Unbreakable Unbreakable, yeah.”
Subtlety is not what Uglydolls is about.
This is to say nothing about the directing which was the one thing I figured I could count on. The director Kelly Asbury has directed good movies and has a clear understanding of animation, I figured this would be a gimme. It wasn’t. The fames are flat and boring to look at, obviously the colors are bright, we’ve got toys to sell after all, but there are many awkward scenes where two or three characters stand directly next to each other and speak to each other on the same plain. The script itself was bland and uninterested in holding your attention the comedy was mostly based in characters commenting on whatever’s going on around them.
Uglydolls is a mixture of many different films. It definitely has some Toy Story, some The Lego Movie, some The Emoji Movie, and some Trolls, but it comes across as being much more focused on the green to me. No lie, I think The Emoji Movie was underrated when compared to this.
|RELEASE DATE:||May 3 2019|