The importance of learning to be happy with who you are, whatever your flaws, rather than trying to become what other people think you should be, is the banal but benign lesson taught by “UglyDolls,” an animated movie based on a line of plush toys aimed straight for the very young crowd. Apart from a stray reference to “Oliver Twist,” there isn’t much in the movie that is specifically intended for anybody over the age of five who’s not susceptible to rank sentimentality, but the Teletubbies set should find it an agreeable way to pass ninety minutes.
The UglyDolls are a bunch of fluffy figurines living in Uglyville, a cramped seaside burg. Each has some physical defect that supposedly renders him or her unworthy of becoming a beloved toy for a kid in the “Great World” outside. Under the leadership of Mayor Ox (voiced by Blake Shelton), who’s missing an eye (the space marked by an “X”), they live a fairly contented existence—all, that is, except for Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), a spunky pink thing with three mismatched teeth who dreams that every day might be the one that unites her with a child (a hope she sings about in the first of many original—meaning new, though hardly distinctive—songs strung through the movie, most by the team of Christopher Lennertz and Glenn Slater; this is, in fact, a musical).
Moxy enlists her friends—Ugly Dog (Pitbull), a one-eyed canine; Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), a big furry giant; Wage (Wanda Sykes), an apron-wearing cook with two incisors on her lower lip; and Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom), who specializes in telling fortunes—to help investigate the portal through which newcomers are periodically dumped into Uglyville. It takes them not to the Great World, however, but a place called the Institute for Perfection, where an ultra-cool flawless doll named Lou (Nick Jonas) presides over a regimen that prepares other dolls to run a gauntlet that will prove them worthy to proceed into the arms of children.
The Uglydolls, it turns out, are rejects from the doll factory that were meant to be sent to recycling; but Lou says that he saved them—beginning with his old buddy Ox—from such a fate, sending them to Uglyville instead, where they belong. Moxy, however, insists on going through the process with her friends, and Lou aims to ensure that they fail, using his minions Tuesday (Bebe Rexha), Kitty (Charli XCX) and Lydia (Lizzo) as his henchwomen. Fortunately Mandy (Janelle Monáe), one of his followers who knows how they feel because she has to wear glasses, befriends the group.
Despite Lou’s best—or really worst—efforts, the picture ends with everybody running the gauntlet against him, a sort of real-world simulation involving encounters with a dog, a vacuum cleaner and a baby, among other obstacles. Guess who wins, guess who gets his comeuppance, and guess who finds her destiny in the arms of a human child who smiles glowingly at the fuzzy pink oddity her parents could have plucked from a shelf at Toys-R-Us before it closed, or more likely ordered through Amazon.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and certainly “UglyDolls” is preferable to most other pictures developed from toy lines. (It’s certainly a refreshing change from the mayhem of the “Transformers” franchise.) It’s also an improvement over the two other solo directorial efforts from Kelly Asbury, “Gnomeo and Juliet” and “Smurfs: The Lost Village.”
But while sweet, cuddly and innocuous, the movie is also utterly bland in every respect, from the songs to the voicework to the colorful-but-nothing-special animation; even the villainous Lou is a pretty tame creation (and there’s way too much of his song-and-dance routines).
Still, the picture is amiable enough to charm its very young target audience, and parents are likely to find it a harmless surrogate babysitter. Its message about being yourself, coupled with an anti-bullying admonition, will be undoubtedly be welcome.
From the standpoint of the makers, of course, “UglyDolls” will serve quite different functions. It’s a feature-length advertisement for the brand, and will undoubtedly spur sales. It serves as a virtual pilot for a TV series already committed to by Hulu.
And if that seems too mercenary-minded, think of how bad things might have been. The Cabbage Patch Kids, the “ugly dolls” of the eighties, were never brought to the big screen, but their trading-card imitators, the Garbage Pail Kids, were in 1987, and the result was what is widely regarded as one of the worst movies of all time. “Uglydolls” might not be a kiddie classic, but it’s certainly not in that league.