Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world. 

Strength #2: The Music
It’s hard not to notice that apart from Wanda Sykes (who gives voice to the cynical Wage), most of the main character voices aren’t actors. They’re singers and musicians, and the music by Christopher Lennertz and Glenn Slater and others is upbeat and whatever word they’re using now to describe something that’s absolutely current. Besides Clarkson there’s Blake Shelton as Uglyville’s mayor Ox, who insists that the world of children and their dolls is just a myth; Pitbull as Ugly Dog, who helps Moxy every step of the way; Janelle Monáe,, a perfect doll with a secret (she needs glasses) that the UglyDolls meet in Perfection; Wang Leehom as Lucky Bat, another pilgrim to the other world; Nick Jonas as Lou, a prototype doll who runs the town of Perfection and operates a kind of last test for dolls wanting to pass through the portal to become “adopted” in the world above; Emma Roberts as latecomer UglyDollWedgehead; and Gabriel Iglesias as Babo, the biggest and softest spoken of the UglyDolls. From the big opening number to the final song, the music is get-up-and-dance catchy, and that’s by design. Included is the option to watch a Sing-Along Version of the film. It all sounds pretty great in DTS-HDMA 7.1.

Strength #3: The CGI Animation
UglyDolls is texturally rich and full of bright primary colors, the same way that TV shows are deliberately designed to appeal to very young children. This first animated feature from STX Entertainment (Bad Moms, Molly’s Game) is certainly accomplished enough—something you particularly notice when the plush dolls are tossed into a washing machine as a punishment and come out looking like static electric puffballs at one point. The backgrounds and character design have a clean look to them—something that’s reinforced by an overall style that’s a happy medium between minimalist and cluttered, which makes sense, given that the STX mission is to produce and distribute medium-budget projects.

But the film does have its weaknesses.

Weakness #1, 2, and 3: The Concept
As more than a few reviewers have already pointed out, this film doesn’t really cover much in the way of new ground, which makes it seem average and formulaic. The parable nature of the plot plus the names of the places—Uglyville and Perfection—will have people thinking of familiar Dr. Seuss landscapes. And we’ve seen so many variations of outcasts or rejects trying to prove themselves that the plot seems hackneyed. There’s a bit of contrivance as well. We see scanners examining hundreds of toys in a factory as they roll past on conveyor belts, while the rejects are picked up and sent down the chute, not to a junk heap but to land in a fully functional little town with a mayor and everything. But while it was implied that the “perfect” toys of all different kinds were sent immediately to market, we later learn that there’s a toy gauntlet they have to run before they pass through a portal and assume their place with a loving child owner. Supervising this gauntlet and operating it like a boot camp is Lou, whom we learn is a prototype, meaning he wasn’t made to be sold. But why doesn’t Lou immediately send these rejects back after they’re discovered? And why is it that these weirdly shaped plush UglyDolls have to spend time in this town of Perfection to run the gauntlet when they’re plush and everyone else in the town is human-like? And why is there a town of Perfection anyway, except to have symbolic function? I mean, if the point is that perfect toys that pass the final gauntlet get to leave for the outside world, then why is there a whole town of dolls living in Perfection? Small children probably care, but when the only tweak you make to an otherwise familiar plot doesn’t make any sense, it counts for more than a single weakness.

Bratz dolls debuted the same year as the UglyDolls, and three “spy girls” working for Lou in this animated film are rendered in such a way that you’ll find yourself thinking of the sassy dolls. But while there are a few self-referential jokes, for the most part UglyDolls is aimed at an audience too young to get them. Parents, meanwhile, will find them a welcome relief and wonder why the writers didn’t include more of them.

There are worse movies and TV shows to watch with your little ones over and over, but there are better ones too. This falls right in the middle . . . but you won’t be able to tell them that. Little ones ought to love this movie!