The movie “UglyDolls” prompts the same question one would ask when looking at any of the plush-toy characters in the store: What the heck is this thing?
On the one hand, it’s an 87-minute infomercial for a toy line. On the other hand, it’s a cookie-cutter plot about being your own true self, mixed with a little “Toy Story”-lite lesson about how a toy’s best destiny is to be loved by a child. On the third hand — surely, one of these UglyDolls has to have three hands, amirite? — it’s a vehicle to throw together a voice cast with such chart-toppers as Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monae, Pitbull, Nick Jonas, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX and Lizzo for a forgettable song score.
The story starts in Uglyville, where all the UglyDolls live happy lives singing that “it doesn’t get better than this.” The cheeriest of the UglyDolls is Moxy (voiced by Clarkson), who is convinced that today will be the day she finally achieves the apex of toy life: To be paired with a child in “the Big World.” Uglyville’s mayor, Ox (voiced by Shelton), tries to tell Moxy that “the Big World” is a myth, but Moxy is undeterred.
One day, Moxy leads a group of Uglies — cynical Wage (voiced by Wanda Sykes), worrywart Lucky Bat (voiced by Wang Leehom), lovable lug Babo (voiced by Gabriel Iglesias) and too-cool Ugly Dog (voiced by Pitbull) — through the portal that sends new UglyDolls to Uglyville each day. That’s how they end up at the Institute of Perfection, where all the “pretty dolls” get their training before going to meet their child.
The “pretty dolls” freak out at the sight of the UglyDolls, but their leader, the super-perfect Lou (voiced by Jonas), gives them the chance to prove themselves. But, as the story goes on, we learn Lou may not be as perfect, or as nice, as he seems.
Not all the “pretty dolls” are turned off by the UglyDolls, though. Mandy (voiced by Monae) makes fast friends with Moxy, bonding over the fact that Mandy has what the disapproving Lou has what would be seen as an “ugly” trait: Mandy wears glasses.
The script, by rookie Alison Peck (and a story credit, weirdly enough, to “Spy Kids” and “Alita: Battle Angel” director Robert Rodriguez), meanders all over the place, and the humor veers wildly from kid-friendly slapstick to over-their-heads references. Director Kelly Asbury (whose last film was “Smurfs: The Lost Village”) keeps things moving with some colorful visuals, particularly in the many musical numbers.
Of course, with a voice cast like this, there would be musical numbers. Composer Christopher Lennertz (“Sausage Party,” “Supernatural”) and lyricist Glenn Slater (who triumphed last year with “A Place Called Slaughter Race” in “Ralph Breaks the Internet”) serve up a full score of bubblegum pop and empowerment ballads. None of them are particularly memorable, except maybe for Monae’s makeover song, “All Dolled Up” and Jonas’ villain song, “The Ugly Truth.”
The jumbled storytelling, frenetic animation, monotonous songs and overtalented voice cast make “UglyDolls” one of the most head-scratching animated movies in a long time. It’s not really good, but its badness is strangely fascinating.
Opens Friday, May 3, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action. Running time: 87 minutes.