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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



UglyDolls, Review: I’mperfect

UglyDolls, Review: I’mperfect

Toys and dolls are inanimate objects, to which we sometimes add motion and flight, using technology. Yet, why do children, and sometimes adults, get so attached to them? Though there exist pet animals, birds and water-borne life that can be, and are often, adopted and accommodated in homes, the attraction that draws young minds, more girls than boys, to dolls, of all shapes, sizes and functions, is a force to reckon with. Most likely, the child owners of such toys let their nascent imagination define their relationship with the dolls. Mention imagination, and in come movies to kick it off in style, on huge screens, with superb sound and songs added, colour-burst treats like UglyDolls.

Not quite the title that cute, adorable Hollywood movies would choose for their audio-visual extravaganzas, UglyDolls is an animated manifestation of the fixation of humans towards perfection. If humans want themselves to be perfect, why would they accept toys and dolls that are imperfect, or ugly? Products that are found to be flawed are usually sold off as factory seconds, or dumped as garbage. UglyDolls comes up with an interesting premise which is halfway along both options: dolls that have a manufacturing defect are thrown/picked off the assembly lines and taken along a conveyor belt and tunnel, to be dumped, with a one-way ticket, into UglyVille, their permanent abode, away from the rest of the world.

Every doll in UglyVille is imperfect (though none of them are really ‘ugly’), with an eye missing here, ears missing there, shape gone awry, and what have you. They represent animals, birds and water-dwellers, and function like a regular small town, where new arrivals keep falling off the tunnel regularly. Having no access to anything or anybody outside UglyVille, they are resigned to their fate…all but one of them, that is. She is called Moxy, and the film begins with her singing a song titled ‘Couldn’t be better’:

Hello gorgeous, let's check out how you look today

Short and stubby, and, my gosh, look how much you weigh

You're pinkish red, got this thing on your head, and woah

Girl, you couldn't look better

Shake the sleep off and kick into the morning drill

It's another awesome day here in Uglyville

Grab your shoes, time to spread the good news, woah

Things just couldn't be better

Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) loves her square-peg life in this round-hole town, but her curiosity about all things leads her to wonder if there’s something – anything – on the other side of the mountain which nestles Uglyville. Moxy gathers a group of her closest friends and sets off to find what’s on the other side. They discover another world – Perfection – a town where more conventional dolls are trained in protocols, at the Institute of Perfection, before they graduate and are sent to the ‘real’ world to find the love of a child. In Perfection, Moxy and her crew are subject to the manipulations of Lou (Nick Jonas), the perfect doll in charge of training recruits. Here, the UglyDolls will confront what it means to be different, struggle with their desire to be loved, and ultimately discover that you don’t have to be perfect to be amazing, because who you truly are is what matters most.

UglyDoll toys have been created by David Horvath and Sun-min Kim, a Korean-American enterprise launched in 2001, who are both executive producers on the film. Robert Rodriguez has written the story, which was adapted for the screen by newcomer Alison Peck (who replaced Larry Stuckey). Quite evidently, these gents and the lady have the dual qualifications mandated for such a film: a child-like heart and mind, and the ability to make educated guesses about want can be achieved and what cannot be, through visual effects and computer animation. One could add to that the ability to create a new universe, different form the hundreds of animation films made earlier, that will engage the attention of pre-teens children.

Perfection, versus natural or inherent imperfection, is a good, moral, pro-life premise, though the film does not fulfil the promise that it makes as it sets off on a musical journey that counterpoises UglyVille and Perfection. One obvious shortcoming is the lack of enthusiasm and motivation that is evident among the three/four UglyVille residents who accompany Moxy on the journey of her lifetime, with one of them needing real persuasion to become part of the expedition. Once in Perfection, these accompanists become almost extras (junior artistes) as Moxy takes centre-stage. Sixteen songs punctuate the narrative, and are perhaps six too many, considering the film is of 88 minutes duration only.     

59 year-old Kelly Asbury (American; Oscar-nominated for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Gnomeo and Juliet, Smurfs: The Lost Village; favourite film: To Kill a Mockingbird) is the director, and it was his idea to make it a musical. If you come out of the theatre getting the impression that you have just watched a 1940 Hollywood musical, that is exactly what he wants you to feel. Asbury was still under the weather with the box-office failure of Smurfs when STX approached him. As against the rigid traits and vocabulary attributed to the Smurf characters, he was given almost clean slate in UglyDolls.

Perhaps the punny humour, like Oliver~all over, the tea leaves scene, the ‘impression’ of Justin Bieber+Donald Trump in the only human doll in the film, Lou, who turns out to be a prototype and not the real thing, and a song that is titled ‘All dolled up’, are an extension of this freedom. Asbury worked in close collaboration with editor Julie Rogers. Editing is on par, with many characters moving at similar gaits (what else would you expect from assembly-line products), slow to exaggerated fast, as is often the norm in animation characters, but we also have a giant snail (or was it a tortoise?) that really crawls.

With all that animation and VFX, done in Montréal, China (the film has been made with a significant amount of Chinese funding) and other places, it is worthwhile to take a look at the art direction. Creating characters is one half, creating the milieu in which they live, entire towns, no less, is the other. UglyDolls has, in its credits, a name that goes Ravindra Kundi as Art Director, and he has done a good job of creating both locations, UglyVille and Perfection. Visual Development Artist/ Concept Artist, 2d Artist,3d Modeler, Layout/Previz Artist, Ravinder Kundi has over 17 years of experience in Feature Animation, Stop motion and VFX industry. He has worked on numerous features around the world, like Scooby, Amusement Park, Home, Penguins of Madagascar, Rock Dog, Happy Feet 2, Arthur Christmas, Happy Never After, Legend of the Guardians and The Tale of Despereaux.

UglyDolls’ catchy musical score is composed by Christopher Lennertz, while songs are written by Lennertz and Glenn Slater. Artistes include Anitta, Bebe Rexha, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Pentatonix, Why Don't We and the UglyDolls cast. Some thirty lyricists wrote the songs.

A few fellow critics have compared UglyDolls with the computer-animated comedy, Trolls (2016), and found it inferior, but I am not afforded that luxury, not having seen Trolls. Some of them have found that a few scenes seem to have been cut-pasted from other films in the genre, and if that is true, we can hold the UglyDolls creative team guilty of being lazy. The movie carries a PG Rating, and I concur. There are some scary scenes, when the dolls are put to various tests, and the whole idea of rejecting ugly and imperfect things, in favour beautiful and perfect versions, is too strong for children to digest on their own.

The first animated feature from STX Entertainment, UglyDolls was conceived in 2011 and then almost shelved at one stage, for reasons that remain unknown, but when it was revived, it took 14 months to complete. UglyDolls was scheduled to be released on May 10, 2019. However, it was moved up a week to May 3, in order to avoid competition with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. An animated series is also underway, with a full series order from premium streaming service Hulu, and Hasbro joined early on as global master toy licensee. You know what the company that makes UglyDolls, the dolls that is, is called? Ugly Industries Holdings!

UglyDolls is not perfect but has has enough appeal to see you through, if you keep your intellectual analysing propensities in check. 

Rating: ** ½


Voice cast

Kelly Clarkson as Moxy

Janelle Monáe as Mandy, a lonely perfect doll, with short-sight, who befriends the UglyDolls

Nick Jonas as Louis ‘Lou’, the mean leader from the town of Perfection, with silk yarn golden hair

Blake Shelton as Ox, the Unofficial Mayor of UglyVille, and a former friend of Lou, who was the first to be shunted out to UglyVille

Pitbull as Ugly Dog, a one-eyed dog who is asked to terrorise the UglyDolls but ends up befriending Moxy (he was the first artiste to come on board)

Wang Leehom as Lucky Bat, a wise and thoughtful bat-like adviser, who is sent to dissuade Moxy from pursuing her dream but ends up, unwittingly, encouraging her

Kelly Asbury, the director himself, as Gibberish Cat (she does talk gibberish), Oliver, Chef, Buttons

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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