By: Hawk Ripjaw (Six Pack) –
UglyDolls is my latest “Jeffrey Katzenberg has taken me hostage” movie.
I recall, years ago, I had drafted a review for the Dreamworks cacophony that was Home. A film that, as Ken Eckman described, I “hate fucked.” A film that I wrote a review for, and opened with Jeffrey Katzenberg taking myself and a room of others hostage to force us to watch Home, and he murdered an audience member to prove he was serious. I edited the scenario to be slightly less dark, but I stand by what I felt when I viewed the movie, and I have felt it again now.
UglyDolls is my latest “Jeffrey Katzenberg has taken me hostage” movie.
I hated UglyDolls. I hated, hated hated it. I hated it so much that “hated” doesn’t feel appropriate enough to convey how I felt about watching it. It is loathsome, unpleasant, and depressing.
UglyDolls begins in UglyVille, where poorly made and flawed dolls live in harmony. Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) knows that she’s overweight (why is that even a thing for a fucking plush doll), her teeth are crooked and she’s got a weird growth on her head, but she’s proud of it and she owns it. She sings an entire song about it. Despite being content with herself, Moxy still yearns for a human to claim her and love her (like me, but only the second part). She reasons that if UglyDolls are being dropped into UglyVille every couple of days, they must be coming from somewhere and thus there must be something else out there. That’s reasonably sound logic, which is why it really doesn’t make any fucking sense why the entire town seems willfully oblivious to it. UglyVille’s mayor, Ox (Blake Shelton) actively discourages Moxy to leave the town. Regardless, she does anyway, dragging with her Wage (Wanda Sykes), Ugly Dog (Pitbull), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Lucky Bat (Wang Leehom).
When they climb back up the chute, they find themselves in a factory producing more normal-looking dolls en masse, and follow the assembly line into the Institute of Perfection. Here, dolls are groomed to look and behave perfectly, so they will eventually get selected, taken away and given to a human child. In charge of this process is Lou (Nick Jonas), who sends every doll through trials involving how not to get damaged or soiled and essentially be the perfect toy. He also takes every opportunity to insult others for physical imperfections such as a strand of hair that’s out of place. He of course balks at the appearance of the UglyDolls and the idea of them being sent to a human. He begrudgingly allows them to enter training, but has no intention of them succeeding. He repeatedly fails them, moving the goalposts and sabotaging them, just so he can put them into a giant washing machine that will eventually kill them. I am not exaggerating. Every time they fail a trial because they get splattered with paint or something, the robots that work for Lou throw the UglyDolls into this giant washing machine. He makes it very clear that every time they go through the machine, they will get closer to being completely deteriorated.
Luckily, they make fast friends with Mandy (Janelle Monae) who has her own imperfection: glasses. Knowing she’d be rejected if this were to be discovered, she keeps her glasses off and allows herself the repeated injury of running into things instead. She helps the UglyDolls get a makeover in order for them to be beautiful enough to train with Lou. Lou learns where the UglyDolls come from, and it turns out that he knows Ox. He sends his basic brats Kitty (Charlie XCX), Tuesday (Bebe Rexha), and Lydia (Lizzo) to kidnap Ox and bring him back in a bag, where the UglyDolls learn that they are literal rejects, discarded from the assembly line. In addition, back in the day, Ox and Lou were best friends. But when the rest of the Institute rejected Ox for being ugly and for messing up on the gauntlet, they try to get him thrown into a furnace and killed. For those in the back:
THE BEAUTIFUL DOLLS WANT TO THROW ALL OF THE UGLY DOLLS INTO A FUCKING FURNACE AND KILL THEM.
Lou helps him escape, board up the opening to the furnace, and create UglyVille. Years later, he is now a supervillain obsessed with beauty. There is no explanation offered for this transition.
So now that everyone in UglyVille has learned that they’re rejected toys, they suddenly lose all of their positivity, become deeply depressed, nihilistic, and borderline self-harming (I can’t confirm this but I swear I remember something like that happening) and the entire town visually takes on a dark, chilly hue. For some reason, the entire town has essentially come to a halt and everyone is starving to death. This movie really spends a lot of time focusing on how much everyone hates themselves.
At the Institute of Perfection, Lou has gone full psycho and wants to send all of the UglyDolls to the furnace, “where they belong.” Now that Lou is basically Hitler, the UglyDolls have to pull themselves together and push back against Lou before they all burn and die.
UglyDolls is not just derivative, it is a wholesale ripoff of other, better movies, mainly the Toy Story franchise. A climactic furnace sequence is almost beat-for-beat a copy of Toy Story 3’s climax. Uglyville is literally The Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. When encountered by humans, the dolls instinctively “play dead,” just like in Toy Story. Other elements shamelessly borrow from the likes of the Smurfs movies, Trolls, and several other mainstream animated movies from the last few years.
It’s also confused in the logic of its world. It’s never made completely clear whether or not most of these dolls know that they’re toys, and they’re only really regarded as such by the movie intermittently. Their sense of being is never truly explored, although since the movie can barely get its head around the concept of self-love, the existential musings of whether or not one is truly alive is above what it seems to willing to explore. But by establishing the UglyDolls as toys and failing to consistently approach what that means for them on a grander scale, it comes across as underwritten.
Allegedly, after the animation was finished, the script got punched up a little resulting in some weird off-screen lines and random bits of humor. The punch-ups do not make the movie funnier. There is not any way to make UglyDolls funnier. If you kidnapped me and shot me in the head using a gun with bullets that could seek out the part of my brain that could distinguish what I think is funny and destroyed that brain part, thus rendering me unable to understand what is or is not funny, I would still not laugh once at UglyDolls.
In my very full theater of children and their parents, absolutely no one laughed once. Dead fucking silence after every single joke, with every face young and old either staring solemnly at the screen or shifting restlessly, trying in vain to find comfort as the cold, dead energy of UglyDolls washed over us. The mother directly in front of me couldn’t look away from Pinterest on her phone, oblivious to how fleeting it all is, seemingly unable to hear her toddler begging “Mommy, can we please leave?” At a quiet point in the movie, this youngster waddled over to me and asked, “Mr. Ripjaw, why are we being forced to watch this?” Tears in his eyes, emotion and helplessness overwhelmed him as his mother barely paid heed. I too looked away, the right words evading me. There is little doubt in my mind that the lives of all of the children in the theater that day were worsened by the experience of UglyDolls.
What follows is a list of things that feel shorter than UglyDolls:
The entire Lord of the Rings extended trilogy back-to-back with no bathroom breaks
Your mother-in-law telling a story about her office coworker
Sitting in the DMV for a new Driver’s License
A traditional Mexican Catholic wedding
Staring at yourself in the mirror watching your hair grow, but you’re bald
While there is some eye candy in the handmade, cardboard-and-string aesthetic to Uglyville, the rest of the film’s animation is indeed ugly. It looks cheaply-made and often feels like a number of fair-use assets got strung together, particularly The Institute of Perfection. That setting is an off-putting, dim oblivion with nothing but sky in the distance and every house and tree identical to the other. Perhaps this was intentional, with conformity and archetypal appearances being the tenets of the Institute of Perfection. Maybe the grim skies echo the emotional pain and death that the Institute represents. If that was what they were going for, it was effective-looking, yet still cheap. The dolls themselves have a bit of texture, but this is supplanted by horrifying, dead eyes that don’t feel like part of the dolls’ bodies and just hover, glassy and soulless.
The musical sequences are also suspicious giveaways of the film’s low budget, and while we shouldn’t fault a film for having to get creative with how it made use of less money, the songs here are just strange. For most of the songs, the characters are simply singing in the current setting or against a patterned background, while–again–probably free assets and decals get splashed across the foreground. Nearly all of the musical sequences seriously feel like some kind of daytime Nickelodeon channel horseshit that can keep the kids quiet and distracted enough for Mom to open her third bottle of wine. She props herself up on the dining room table, vaguely aware that it’s barely noon. The whispers of Cthulhu tickle at the edges of her psyche, tempting her to the cold embrace of the chaos.
The characters do not develop or have arcs, instead following a straight line from one point to another, and then back to the first point. None of the main characters grow or develop. A couple of the pretty dolls learn to accept imperfections, but not without acknowledging that being more beautiful would be better. Take for example a sequence in which one of the dolls has a song in which she gives makeovers to the UglyDolls, in an attempt to get them into the competition to be claimed by a child. It sends the wrong message to the children that are watching this. It comes across as a “accept yourself, but technically it is better to be beautiful so I’m going to cut your hair and dress you up.” When the movie’s opening message is “love yourself,” introducing a caveat to that message permanently sours it. Moxy does eventually come back around, ending up right where she started in terms of how she feels about herself, which is good–and then she finally gets her human, and the young girl….also has crooked and missing teeth. This implies that, yes, Moxy is worthy of a human…but only to a certain point and only from a child who also has a “defect.”
The characters, their motivations and development are meaningless. The final resolution to the story is not only poor, it’s illogical and solves aboslutely nothing.
And why is it so FUCKED UP? Why do they have to make it so that the giant washing machine steadily erodes the body of a doll to the point that they are destroyed? Why are there two or three separate instances of violent kidnapping? Why does the bad guy specifically want to throw all of the imperfect dolls into a furnace “where they belong?” When Lou is finally defeated, why does the entirety of the Institute of Perfection enter mob mentality and literally scream for his death? Why is there a giant robot baby that nearly murders several characters? What the fuck, movie?
UglyDolls is an ugly film indeed.
It announces itself with a putrid, unpleasant aura that invaded my mind and and permeated my mood, filling my body and soul with a sense of deep, penetrating dread. The burden of UglyDolls is never alleviated, and the cold truth of the world is laid bare, never to be concealed again. We are unloved, rejected, and forgotten about. We can try to conform to what the world wants us to act or look like, but the world won’t accept it. The message the movie is apparently going for is this: love yourself for who you are, but still, it would be much better if you were good-looking.
I saw a very horrifying cartoon two decades ago that has still scarred me to this day, and UglyDolls conjured that memory back. In this cartoon, a man is strapped down and is struck repeatedly until his negative energy is siphoned from his body and then belched back towards him, which for me is a sort of constant reminder that I hate myself, a thought pattern that UglyDolls appears to reinforce in the impressionable young minds it caters to. I can actually imagine this movie creating a negative feedback loop for some viewers.
Nothing matters, the ones we love the most will at some point stop loving us back (if they even did in the first place), and we’re only good enough to a certain point, and for only so long. This is what we are teaching our children.
In the absence of light, darkness flourishes. Left unchecked, evil will metastasize and consume us all, leaving nothing but chaos. UglyDolls is that chaos.
UglyDolls (2019) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time the movie fails the Bechdel test.
Take a Drink: every time Lou says something hurtful.
Take a Drink: whenever someone is ashamed of their physical appearance.
Do a Shot: for every song (hydrate, hydrate, hydrate)