By Karen Gordon
As someone who doesn’t have kids, I was a bit confused by UglyDolls. It seems to hit all the things that kids’ movies go for.
To wit: brightly coloured visuals, sympathetically designed characters (in this case lead characters that look like soft fuzzy goofy lumps), and a key teaching message that basically boils down to “You’re okay just the way you are,” a.k.a. “Accept yourself” a.k.a. “You matter.”
And it didn’t take long for me to figure out that this whole thing was based on an actual toy.
What I can’t completely figure out who is who this is for? At first, it seemed to be for little kids. But as the movie goes on, it seemed to take a turn to elementary school age kids and even tweens.
So, does a more complicated plot make it tough for the little ones? And do the cuddly main characters make it too ‘baby-ish’ for the older kids?
My confusion was complicated by the fact that I saw this the day after The Game of Thrones famous Battle of Winterfell episode, which I was still contemplating. The two have more in common than you’d think. UglyDolls doesn’t have Seven Kingdoms of course. It has three, Uglyville, Perfection, and then the real world. (Arguably four if you include the recycling section)
They both have leaders bent, not just on power over everything, but on imposing their ideas on the way of life for their subjects. GoT’s fearsome Night King can walk through fire, and raise the dead. In UglyDolls, Lou (voiced by Nick Jonas) runs Perfection. Granted, he doesn’t have the ability to raise the dead, and turn them into attack zombies. But arguably, Lou wields a scarier and more insidious power.
He demands perfection.
Lou is, himself, boy-band pop-idol perfect. He sings his messages to the newest dolls-in-training as part of his tough-training boot-camp aimed at readying the dolls for their passage into the real world. Only the perfect make it through, he preaches, because perfection is what it takes to make a kid happy.
But under that perfect hair and skin, great style and confident manner, Lou is a despot.
He makes one doll, who came out of the factory with freckles, wear a sign around his neck that says “Ugly.” Lou has a trio of girl dolls, who will do anything to curry his favour. But there are secrets: Mandy, (Janelle Monáe) looks perfect, but she hides the glasses she needs to see in the distance. To paraphrase one character after Lou has sung his opening number: ‘No one can entertain and demoralize with a song, like Lou.’ He’s not a nice guy.
And, keeping with the Game of Thrones similiarities, while there is no Iron Throne, there is a much desired power seat in UglyDolls: the warm lap of a child. And to sit there and be the source of love and comfort to a child, is the dream - just out of reach - of an UglyDoll named Moxy (Kelly Clarkson).
Uglyville is a little town set on a coastline. It’s filled with misfit toys who don’t really know they’re misfits - more like sock dolls that have some kind of mistake, not enough teeth, one eye missing, too many mouths, eyes. But they are a cheery lot living in imperfect, but incredibly colourful little houses.
The Mayor of Uglyville, Ox (Blake Shelton), is a pal to all, keeping up spirits and constantly trying to dissuade Moxy from thinking too much about her big dream, or from venturing beyond the town’s borders to the rumoured place where the dolls go to be adopted by a child.
But true to her name, Moxy won’t be discouraged. One day she persuades some of her closest and dearest, albeit reluctant friends to at least try to find this mythical place (where a clash with Lou awaits). And along the way the characters sing poppy songs about their goals.
It’s Moxy and her gang’s can-do attitude against Lou’s rigid reality.
Ultimately, it’s a standard formula for a kid’s movie (and standard formulas are standard for movies that are also toy ads). UglyDolls isn’t particularly inventive or outstanding. But perhaps that’s an attempt to keep things from being too jarring for the little ones. It’s also less diverse than you’d expect.
Still, a movie that teaches kids that they’re okay just as they are, and don’t even ever have to be their best selves to give love and to be loved, packs a pretty powerful message. And a righteous one.
UglyDolls. Directed by Kelly Asbury. Starring (voices) Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae. Opens wide, Friday, May 3.