May 03, 2019

Not always pretty, but pretty moral: 'UglyDolls'

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
Ugly Dolls. STX Films
Ugly Dolls. STX Films

Some things are just good and wholesome.

But as a parent, I often hear how kids’ movies tend to lean hard into some inappropriate content. It makes sense. For films to be financially successful, studios need to inject films with material that should go over the heads of children, but can entertain adults at the same time. The first time I really noticed this was when I saw “Toy Story” at the theater. As much as I adore Pixar and the work that they have done at Disney, I can’t help but notice that their films often sneak in innuendo and downplay the message that they are seemingly trying to convey.

“UglyDolls” may be a return to form for summer kids’ films. The first children’s movie from STX Films, “UglyDolls” is a moral powerhouse. Wearing its messages on its sleeve, “UglyDolls” addresses issues that children can relate to, but also provide primers for some deeper ethical questions.

Using misshapen dolls as allegories for society’s obsession with perfection, the titular dolls’ quest to be loved by children is remarkably heartwarming. Director Kelly Asbury took a story about a line of goofy-looking dolls and turned it into an allegory for the dignity of the individual.

On its surface, the film is about not caring about what others think. I really don’t want to come across as dismissive about this theme. Self-image is an issue that many children and adults deal with. A movie about self-image and self-respect is important.

But there is a far more interesting story that grabbed my attention.

As a Catholic writer, the opening scene established it for me. The story quickly establishes that the UglyDolls are stopped from ever having the opportunity to fulfill their basic life’s purpose: to make children happy.

Perhaps it is because I am Catholic that I can’t help but see the connection between these adorable dolls and unwanted children. “UglyDolls”, from all perspectives, is discussing our disposable and throw-away culture.

On the surface, the film really stresses that everyone has a fault and that we should embrace those faults because they make us special.

But the nature of the UglyDolls actually plays up an extremely pro-life message. The UglyDolls stand out against the dolls from the Land of Perfection. Instantly recognized as being somehow lesser, they only desire to find a family to love them. Instead, the companies that created them and the dolls of Perfection want to throw them away. Rather than allow them to live in UglyVille, a makeshift town made by its residents, the leader of Perfection wants to secretly dispose of them.

The UglyDolls remind the perfect dolls about uncomfortable truths, bringing out the darker side of the nice dolls’ natures.

As a film, there are some things lacking. Starring primarily pop stars, the film has a bit of an execution issue. There are jokes in the script. I would have enjoyed these jokes on paper. But the voice actors aren’t necessarily trained actors. There are far too many lines that are delivered as duds.

Structurally, like an UglyDoll, there are some pacing and design issues. Scenes sometimes are stretched for time. The minor characters are one-dimensional. For a while, this really bugged me. I kept on hearing the sad trumpet in my head every time a joke landed flat. But Absury and her team really landed the thing that makes “UglyDolls” into a good movie: it has heart.

It takes a lot for me to ignore the brand power behind a movie named after a set of toys. The only series that really made me appreciate the impact of a piece of merchandise was “The Lego Movie”, and that’s only because the movie is extremely well made. But by the end of “UglyDolls,” I really choked up.

Because the film never ignored its central concept, the value and dignity of the individual, the movie made its characters more than simply toys. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really laugh throughout. Some of the kids around me did. Kids are the core audience and that’s what mattered. But I did feel something honest and real. For a movie trying to sell a merchandised doll, that’s an accomplishment.

“UglyDolls,” like its subject matter, is a flawed film. Its edges are frayed. Its proportions are way off at times. But it also bares its soul and allows itself to be vulnerable. While the “Avengers: Endgame” train will continue to steamroll its way through the weekend, “UglyDolls” is a fantastic opportunity to breathe out and deal with real issues in a fun and musical way.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.