The story behind UglyDolls — the toys, not the new animated movie about them — is a real charmer. Aspiring artist/storytellers David Horvath and his then-girlfriend Sun-Min Kim created the first character, Wage (voiced by Wanda Sykes in the film), when Horvath wrote a letter to Kim, including a sketch of a cartoonish, apron-clad wage slave. When Kim mailed him back a hand-sewn felt version of the figure, Horvath ran over to show it to a friend, Eric Nakamura, who had just opened the store Giant Robot, dedicated to Asian and Asian American pop culture.
Nakamura said, “I’ll take 20.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Horvath and Kim are now married. And the line of UglyDolls — launched in 2001 — has grown to include a wide variety of goofy-looking animal and (vaguely) humanoid characters. They are now, in all likelihood, for sale in a store near you.
Based on Horvath and Kim’s appealingly cockeyed characters, “UglyDolls” begins in a place called Uglyville, where an outcast citizenry of misshapen and otherwise substandard dolls has been exiled, cut off from the love of children because of their perceived imperfections. And who cannot relate?
The off-kilter, jerry-built visual design of the place is actually pretty cute, even if it bears more than a passing resemblance, in spirit, to the Island of Misfit Toys from the 1964 Rankin/Bass holiday classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There’s also a teensy touch of the “Toy Story” franchise here, especially in the movie’s secret-life-of-toys setting. But Horvath and Kim’s backstory and the sweet, small beginnings of their once-outsider product are nowhere to be found.
It probably wouldn’t have made much of a movie anyway.
And yet, as with a bay leaf that has been removed from the stew, there remains a whiff of that counterculture energy and that message of love to the film, despite the feeling at times that you are watching a feature-length commercial for the toys. Mostly, this is thanks to the powerful visual appeal of the dolls themselves, who have delightfully misaligned teeth, missing eyes and other lovable deformities. Their un-slick appearance helps to compensate for the fact that some of the main characters — Moxy, Ox and Ugly Dog — are voiced by pop music stars Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton and Pitbull. Nick Jonas and Janelle Monáe also voice characters from a land of “perfect” dolls, where our heroes journey to become more likable.
Yes, “UglyDolls” is a musical, and the peppy songs, while devoid of any subtlety, help tell the story, and are delivered with sincerity. Such ditties as Clarkson’s “Broken and Beautiful” celebrate body positivity and self-acceptance.
It’s hard to find fault with that, even if there are moments when the film’s explicit critique of idealized beauty is obscured by packaging that is also, in the end, a kind of product pitch.
UglyDolls are already adorable. You don’t have to work that hard to convince anyone.
PG. Area theaters. Contains brief action and some mature thematic elements. 83 minutes.