Kelly Asbury’s UglyDolls bursts out of the gate to the sounds of “Couldn’t Be Better,” a sugary-sweet pop song about self-acceptance and body positivity. The denizens of Uglyville gleefully dance and sing the praises of their little slice of utopia: “It’s a square-peg life in a round-hole town/But it all couldn’t be any sweeter/You may be upside-backwards and wrong-side-down/But it just couldn’t feel more completer.” The tune is certainly on message, but if all these characters’ lives are complete and they’ve already learned to love themselves despite their flaws, what journey is left for them to take?
Lest we forget that this is a film based on a series of plush toys and spearheading the rollout of an upcoming television program and a wide array of games and other merchandise, what better goal could there be for an UglyDoll than to find meaning as a product in the hands of a consumer? Enter Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), the ever-cheerful, never-say-die protagonist who, despite her loving friends and her perfect life in Uglyville, yearns for the mythical “big world” of humans, where every toy is gifted to a child for whom they’re suited. And so she gathers a few of her closest friends, including Ugly Dog (Pitbull), Wage (Wanda Sykes), and Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), and effortlessly convinces them to leave Uglyville in order to trek into the tunnel where all new toys are delivered in search of the human world.
What the gang finds instead is a doll-training academy called The Institute of Perfection, headed by the arrogant and industrious Lou (Nick Jones), who pushes dolls to their breaking point, berating them over every physical imperfection to prepare them for the travails of human ownership. In Moxy’s quest to find her way into the hands of a real human child, she and her friends dutifully run the gauntlet of the snobby autocrat and mean girls—most notably Charli XCX’s deliciously devious Kitty—who try to drain them of all sense of self-worth. But as Moxy is virtually unshakable and resolute in her positivity, she doesn’t grow as a character nor is there much suspense in her working her way past the persistent Lou.
In one particularly comical bit, upon learning they’re indeed the rejected versions of other more perfect toys, the inhabitants of Uglyville become instantly depressed, making way for sight gags and Charles Dickens references that are quite unexpected in this otherwise bright yet bland cheer-fest. But like Moxy, the other UglyDolls bounce back rather quickly, ultimately tapping into their bottomless reservoir of confidence whenever needed, particularly as they resolve to show Lou that their differences make them stronger.
In laying claim to and embracing their own unique, quirky traits, the UglyDolls’ endgame is not, however, a freshly conceived, more broadened utopia of acceptance. That dream is left behind to instead serve the role of a gift for humans, oddly suggesting that it’s more important to assert one’s value in the marketplace than to simply live your own unique life among others who appreciate you. After all, what’s self-worth in the 21st century without a dollar amount attached to it, and what value does UglyDolls have if kids aren’t walking out of the theater nagging their parents for toys of their favorite characters?