For a disposable piece of children’s entertainment that features Pit Bull as the voice of a one-eyed, party-mad puppy named Ugly Dog, there’s something refreshingly straightforward about how “UglyDolls” goes about its agenda. At no point in its mercifully brief running time does this colorful pop confection pretend that it’s anything more than an 88-minute commercial for an innocuous brand of plush toys, and for that we should be grateful. Sure, it’s not as psychedelic as “Trolls,” nor as impressive a monument to the mediocrity of late capitalism as “The Angry Birds Movie,” but at a time when the typical animated movie spends $100 million trying to exhaust its young audience into submission, it’s kinda nice to see one that costs half that much, and tries half as hard.
Written by Alison Peck and Erica Rivinoja with an assist from Vivian Wang, the script doesn’t have much to go on, and it’s totally cool with that. In 2001, “UglyDoll” godheads David Horvath and Sun-min Kim created a line of semi-adorable stuffed animals that look like a cross between Ralph Wiggum and an inbred housecat; some of them have underbites, some of them have overbites, and all of them are designed to make kids feel like their supposed imperfections are the things that make them special. So far as this critic knows, the mythology pretty much stops there (although it seems that some of the characters were featured in a picture book about air conditioning?) “Game of Thrones” this is not.
The “UglyDolls” film makes the most obvious choice at every conceivable opportunity, and is all the more tolerable for that. Within the first 30 seconds of the story, it’s established that the UglyDolls are defective plushies that got messed up somewhere along the assembly line; rather than be recycled, the rejects are sent through a chute into a slum where they all live together on an island of misfit toys (it’s called Uglyville, natch), and sing about how “it doesn’t get better than this.” It’s the perfectly bland Platonic ideal of a premise for an inspirational fable about being yourself.
But while most of the interchangeably jubilant and self-assured characters who live in Uglyville act as though they’ve already seen this movie, one of them can’t shake the feeling that, well, maybe it gets a little better than this. Her name is Moxy, she’s voiced by Kelly Clarkson, and she’s basically what it would look like if a squid could reproduce with a fuzzy turnip. Moxy is the most confident of the group, but also the most curious, and it’s she who leads her friends on a journey up to the Institute of Perfection, where they join the flawless dolls (who look like prep school students for some reason) as they prepare to be paired with a human kid in The Big World above. There’s just one problem: The Institute is ruled by an evil (but seductive!) pop star named Lou, whose design has a real “Draco Malfoy dressing up as Liberace for Halloween” vibe about it.
It should go without saying that Lou is voiced by Nick Jonas, just as it should go without saying that none of the actors in this film spent more than 45 minutes recording their roles. The fact that Blake Shelton plays Ox, a grizzled one-eyed snot bunny who’s seen some real shit in his day, suggests that all of the dialogue was recorded during commercial breaks of “The Voice.” If you asked Emma Roberts how she felt about playing the iconic part of “Wedgehead,” Uglyville’s newest resident, she would probably look at you were an orange chef monster with two entire teeth in your head.
Speaking of orange chef monsters with two entire teeth in their heads, Wanda Sykes manages to bring some real spice to the character of Wage, and she’s not the only one who manages to turn a snack into a meal. Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, and the rising star Lizzo (!?) lend their talents to Lou’s trio of snickering henchgirls, and their occasional snippets of dialogue are much funnier than the rest of the script (“That man can entertain and emotionally devastate like no one else,” one of them coos when Lou comes by). “Welcome to Marwen” vet Janelle Monaé, a multi-hyphenated mega-talent who will apparently voice any movie doll you’ve got when she isn’t busy becoming the next Prince, plays Mandy, a perfect doll whose defective eyesight makes her a natural ally for Moxy.
“UglyDolls” only has enough plot to extend across a short film, but it’s able to fill out into feature-length with the help of a half-dozen songs written by Christopher Lennertz and Glenn Slater. Oh yeah, it’s a musical. And true to form, these tunes are so anodyne and forgettable that your brain might not even clock when the characters begin singing them. Most of these sugary pop ditties sound like Kidz Bop covers of old Taylor Swift singles (or like major improvements on that new Taylor Swift single), and the visuals that accompany them are manic enough to ensure that even the youngest kids in the audience will be glued to the screen.
Movies don’t skew much younger than this — anyone who isn’t still attached to an umbilical cord might roll their eyes at some of the story beats — but “UglyDolls” grows increasingly self-referential as it goes on, as if commiserating with all the parents out there who might not be able to stomach another standard-issue empowerment narrative. Of course it’s important for kids to recognize their own value and embrace what makes them different, but if the last 100 movies didn’t sufficiently condition them to think that way, it’s not like this one is gonna do the trick.
“UglyDolls” seems to be at peace with that fact. If “Shrek 2” director Kelly Asbury’s relatively calm visual storytelling doesn’t make that clear enough, the Exposition Robot — yes, there’s a character named “Exposition Robot” — will seal the deal when he shows up to sheepishly own up to the idea that love and compassion are really what people should prize in each other. “UglyDolls” knows what it is, and it’s totally okay with that. Yes, it does get better than this (a lot better, in fact), but with the bar for kids movies as low as it is these days, it’s nice to see one that at least knows how to like itself.
STX will release “UglyDolls” in theaters on Friday, May 3.