The history of films based on toys has been a varied one. Part of Toy Story‘s genius was its inclusion of many real-life toy brands, the Transformers franchise has grossed billions of dollars for Paramount Pictures, and The Lego Movie managed the twin feats of critical and commercial success. (The less said about Playmobil® The Movie, the better – although this website’s epic takedown of the film is worth a read.)
Now the popular plush toy misfits known as UglyDolls, developed by David Horvath and Sun-Kin Min and first produced as recently as February 2001, star in their own computer-animated movie, and critics have not been kind. But the disparity between the critical derision (27%) and audience approval (58%) on RottenTomatoes.com shows that largely male, predominantly childless professional film critics may not be judging children’s films as they should – on their suitability and entertainment value for children.
Based on a story by Robert Rodriguez (the Spy Kids series), and directed by Kelly Asbury (Gnomeo and Juliet), UglyDolls imagines that the misshapen, colourful characters – Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), Pitbull (Uglydog), Ox (Blake Shelton), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), Wedgehead (Emma Roberts) and Gibberish Cat (Asbury himself) – inhabit a town called Uglyville, where they live in the hopes of being chosen as a companion for a child in the fabled Big World. They live a very Trolls-y life, singing and dancing (not surprising given the voice cast) and having fun.
But when they meet Lou (Nick Jonas), Kitty (Charli XCX), Lydia (Lizzo) and Mandy (Janelle Monáe), the perfect plastic residents of Perfection, they learn the ugly truth about their fate: that everyone in Uglyville has been rejected based on their apparent imperfections, and that no child could ever love them. It’s a heartbreaking lesson for the fuzzy friends to learn, and it hits them hard. Needless to say it won’t be long before Moxy shows her, well, moxie, and leads the UglyDolls to revolution against the perfectly awful residents of Perfection. After all, she says, “It’s our flaws that make us who we are.” Now if that isn’t an empowering message for kids, wrapped up in a high-spirited animated adventure aimed at very young children, I don’t know what is.
Is UglyDolls a Good Movie for Kids?
The ugly truth is that UglyDolls is pretty, pretty great – especially for little ones still riding the sugar rush from Trolls. Perhaps the target audience (little girls aged 8 and under) is too young to be susceptible to the pursuit of perfection seemingly demanded by the Instagram age, but the messages about being your true self, owning your flaws and not needing to be the most perfect version of yourself will certainly resonate.
The midpoint sequence in which Moxy and her fellow ‘rejects’ try to make themselves look like Lou and his plastic pals (whom accompanying adults will recognise as a nod to Heathers) is a perfect illustration of how individuality trumps conformity. My 7-year-old daughter, who accompanied me to the screening, liked the team spirit the characters showed during an escape, but then I asked her what she thought the film was trying to say. “It doesn’t matter how you look,” she said, “it just matters who you are on the inside.” If that isn’t a beautiful message for young children, I don’t know what is.