Hollywood loves a merchandising opportunity. And in recent years, there’s been a trend of turning merchandise itself into movies, which can then spawn more opportunities for merchandising, therefore creating an infinite loop of merchandising opportunities.
The latest children’s toys sent into the movie-transformation merch machine are the colorful, blobby plushies known as Ugly Dolls, whose adventures feature in a new animated film also called “UglyDolls.” But for a film about outlandishly kooky dolls, the film sure is flat, listless and narratively bland.
Directed by animation vet Kelly Asbury, the film has a “story by” credit for producer Robert Rodriguez, who, along with writers Alison Peck, Erica Rivinoja and Vivian Wang, cherry-picked every narrative trope from every animated movie ever. As soon as the film opens with a song by a cheerful hero describing their happy, Utopian community and wondering about the big world out there, you know you’re in for an utterly predictable ride. Unsurprisingly, said hero ends up on an unlikely adventure with a gaggle of quirky pals, and they overcome obstacles, dig deep and learn to love themselves just as they are. If this sounds like “Moana,” “Smallfoot” or any number of other animated films aimed at kids, you’d be correct, and “UglyDolls” does not stray from the formula.
The thin story is padded out with numerous pop songs (and their solemn reprises), and the voice cast is made up almost entirely of music superstars. Kelly Clarkson voices the plucky heroine Moxy, while Janelle Monáe lends her vocal talents to Moxy’s ally Mandy. Nick Jonas and Blake Shelton offer up voices and songs as rivals Lou and Ox, respectively, the leaders of the communities of Perfection and Uglyville. Most memorably, Pitbull makes his debut voicing a slick rapper, one-eyed Ugly Dog.
In this iteration of the tale, Moxy yearns to break free of Uglyville to find the Big World and most importantly, a child to love and cherish. She and a group of ugly pals make their way through a long pipe (which they traveled through as rejects from the assembly line) and find themselves in the land of Perfection, literally, where dolls are put through a rigorous training program and subjected to scrupulous scrutiny by blond-coiffed crooner Lou, who is, essentially, an ’80s-style villain.
Along the way, Moxy is broken down (by Lou) and lifted back up (by Mandy) and learns to embrace herself, fearlessly demonstrate to others how to love themselves and understand that their “flaws” make them special. It’s the kind of Self-Esteem 101 you might expect from a film about lovably “ugly” dolls. It’s poignant, but there’s no wrinkle or twist or anything that might otherwise distinguish the film.
For a film about weird, colorful dolls, one hopes for something wackier, funnier, edgier. But “UglyDolls” is so soft — literally, the felted textures are startlingly realistic — and tame, that it feels like watching those PBS cartoons aimed at toddlers, and that must be the film’s intended audience. For anyone over 5, it’s best as mild, inoffensive background noise, but no more thrilling or satisfying than that.
It turns out to be nothing more than a merchandising opportunity after all.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG, for thematic elements and brief action
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts May 3 in general release