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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

There are lots of little details with UglyDolls that almost work here, that come within spitting distance of actually cohering into a reasonable family film. At the broadest possible level, there is something charming in how UglyDolls almost feels like a throwback. The structuring and design of the story represent a return to an older style of animated movie storytelling, one predicated on poppy dance numbers and clearly defined characters. UglyDolls repeatedly pauses its action for big showstopping poppy musical numbers. None of those numbers are especially memorable, but it feels like an older sort of children’s movie storytelling.

On a more basic level, the actual character and world design of UglyDolls is impressively imaginative. The concept artwork for UglyDolls must have been beautiful, as the film is populated with a variety of striking and enchanting details houses and jetties made of cardboard to the moon as a (broken) button to a sea woven in cotton. The make-believe world in which the film operates is genuinely impressive. It is nowhere near as sophisticated and developed – whether narratively or technically – as films like Toy Story or Inside Out, but it is imaginative.

Papering over the problems with the film.

However, the film suffers from underestimating it’s audience. UglyDolls is very much aimed at a young audience, but presumably one old enough the recognise Janelle Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Pitbull and Nick Jonas. As such, it seems strange that the film seems to repeatedly and awkwardly condescend to them. The central theme of “just be who you are and don’t feel you have to conform” is heartening and earnest, even if it feels somewhat cynical in a film packaging a generic poppy soundtrack album, but it also feels overly simplistic when compared to the sorts of ideas that modern animated films expect children to handle.

Even beyond theme, the target audience for UglyDolls should be old enough to follow linear plotting and to handle simple subtext. Instead, UglyDolls is drawn in the broadest possible terms. The plotting is episodic rather than linear, the narrative populated with lots of strange detours and distractions that seem consciously designed to be expendable; it would be possible to cut around twenty minutes from the film without impacting the flow of the story in any meaningful way.

Taking the matter in hand.

Even the film’s humor falls back on the familiar, tired and patronising explain-the-gag structure that is far too common in films aimed at younger audiences today. (“Kidnapping should be a crime!” one character exclaims. “I’m pretty sure kidnapping is a crime!” another responds. After a character runs into a randomly-placed rake, knocking themselves out, another remarks, “Thank goodness for that randomly-placed rake.”) The storytelling is awkwardly disjointed, as if afraid to hold a single thought for more than a scene (or montage) at a time.

Even in technical terms, UglyDolls suffers from lack of detail. As with the original Toy Story, there is a sense that the choice of subject matter was designed to obscure technical limitations in the animation. This makes sense, and is a rational choice; dolls can look uncanny and inhuman, and so are easier to design and render in computer-generated animation. However, the characters in the film often struggle to express themselves non-verbally, their expressions seeming to revert to blank pleasantness whenever they are out of focus. This lends the film a disconcerting and uncanny quality, a sense of being subtly “off.”

The right stuffed.

The ugly truth is that UglyDolls is a disappointment.

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