Take out the end credits, and UglyDolls is about 80 minutes long. I spent every single one of them trying to figure out what hell was wrong with their mouths. Let's do an exercise, you and I. Lightly put your hand on your face, right around your cheekbones. I'm serious, please do it. So much the better if you have a mirror handy. Now, open your eyes really wide, and then squint them closed. You feel your face move around, right? Now put your hand closer to your jaw and open and close your eyes again. Now put your hand on your temple, and open your mouth as wide as possible. You can tell how everything moves everything else, right? That's because your face is made of up of sinews and ligaments and muscles, and you have a stretchy sheet of skin wrapping them all up, and tugging on any part of that system shifts the rest of the system around. Computer animation has a way of trying to get at that, and it's called rigging. Basically what happens is that every articulatable point on a character is given a little handle called a control point, and the rigging artist tells every control point how much of an effect it exerts over every other control point, and those affect other control points, and so on. So you tug one, and it tugs along the rest - skin and bones and clothing and the whole nine yards.

What happens in UglyDolls is that the main characters - plush dolls stuffed with batting, essentially - move their mouths, and everything above their noses is locked firmly into place - they haven't been rigged such that the mouth movement exerts any tug on the eyes, basically. And that's off-putting, but it's not unusual. Cheap CGI has been skimping on rigging since the very first huckster realised that there was money in knocking off Toy Story. The thing that's so fucked up about UglyDolls is that it's not cheap rigging. Because the mouths, they are hella elaborate. A character starts to open their mouth, and it's almost like every single hair on their fuzzy felt faces has been given its own different control point, and the way that their skin stretches and moves out of the way of their widening lips is almost hyper-real, like they're made out of a superfluid substance. It's so specific and elaborate and detailed that it's mildly nauseating; and then, mere centimeters away, their eye sockets are as unyielding as the granite crags of an ancient cliff. It takes us right past the Uncanny Valley, into the Uncanny Seventh Circle of Hell.

Anyhow, outside of being a perversion of computer animation profound enough to make me feel like one of Lovecraft's characters trying to describe the unholy terror of non-Euclidean space, UglyDolls is a dumbass pop musical trying to sell toys to children. The film opens in Uglyville, a shantytown on a beach that's home to a race of oddly-shaped homunculi united by one shared characteristic: they are all freaking adorable. However, if the plot is going to function at all, we must agree that they are in fact repulsively, aberrantly ugly, so let's go ahead and let it slide. These are the UglyDolls, malformed rejects from the Doll Factory in the Sky, and they're all as happy as it's possible to be, so happy that they introduce us to their world in a big musical number unironically titled "Couldn't Be Better." Even so, at least one UglyDoll, named Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), has some vague discontent that things could be at least mildly better, if only she was purchased by the parents of a human child and given to her as a gift. Points for honesty: most of the feature-length toy commercials I've seen over the years aren't so brazen as to actually make "buy toys" the explicit driving force of the narrative.

Long story short, Moxy and four other UglyDolls - between them they share one personality trait, which is that Wanda Sykes provides a voice for the orange one - end up in a community of ostensibly perfect human dolls, though if there exists in this world a single child who would rather own one of the strangely angular things, I'd like to meet them. However, if the plot is going to function at all, &c. Lessons of body positivity are learned, and the fact that every person comes in a different shape with a different set of quirks is praised by a collection of characters whose imperfections were carefully designed and mass-produced. Whether the target audience (nobody over the age of nine) can benefit from that message, and whether it is a mountain-sized hypocrisy for this movie to be voicing that message are, to be sure, different questions.

The film heaves itself up to that not-very-long running time by larding it up with six or seven songs, mostly written by Christoper Lennertz and Glenn Slater, both of whom have worked in the past with Alan Menken and apparently learned nothing in the process. Accordingly, the cast outside of Sykes is made up almost entirely of pop singers from various genres: Clarkson, Pitbull, Nick Jonas, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monaé, Wang Leehom, Bebe Rexha, Charli XCX, Lizzo. It's a cast in which stand-up comic Gabriel Iglesias pretty much by default counts as the second-most highly trained thespian involved. It teaches us something totally unsurprising: pop stars aren't actors. Like, at all. I can't say it's a race to the bottom: Shelton clearly has the least concept of what do with this alien concept called "line delivery". And Clarkson at least sounds authentically happy. But's a race to second-worst, for sure, with even Monaé (who has been not just good, but outright excellent in movies) letting her dialogue lie like dead fish on the sand.

Admittedly, with dialogue, characters, conflicts, and an overall ethos like this, who can blame anybody? UglyDolls is trite boilerplate garbage, putting not an ounce of pressure on its story to move at more than a sluggish crawl through plot points that wouldn't have seemed fresh in a Victorian melodrama, while its tinny, overproduced, Auto-Tuned-to-Hell soundtrack chirps along with robotic good cheer. I will say in its defense that it is almost certainly more banal than bad, and if we are going to have cynical, hypocritical messages in children's movie no matter what, this is at least a particularly nice one. Also, while the rigging is almost enough to push me to have a nervous breakdown, the texture-mapping is phenomenal: besides the felt-covered UglyDolls, Uglyville is a handicraft paradise of cardboard, broken buttons, glue and glitter, and there's something lush and tangible and pleasantly miniaturised about how all of that looks onscreen. It's the first film to pick up the baton the greatly underappreciated Trolls ran with back in 2016, luxuriating in playful child-friendly textures mostly for the sake of pure visual pleasure. And it is a real treat to get to see the bright, colorful aesthetic that the film generates that way; it feels like we've entered a world of toys, and it's a dazzling world, as long as the plot doesn't happen and the characters don't speak. Which isn't nearly often enough, but it's at least one thing the movie unambiguously gets right, and that's one more thing than, I dunno, The Emoji Movie was able to scrounge up.