Directed by veteran animator Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2, Gnomeo and Juliet), UglyDollstransports the viewer to the adorably different town of Uglyville, where eccentricity is celebrated and beauty is understood to mean what lies underneath. Wondering what lies on the other side of the mountain, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson) and her UglyDoll friends discover the of Perfection, where more conventional dolls are trained and sent into the world. Considered outcasts, the UglyDolls are challenged on their ideas of perfection and learn that differences can be amazing too.Absolutely enthusiastic about the project, Asbury believes that part of the charm of the film stems from its roots in traditional Hollywood musicals.
“I realized that this was a very heartfelt [and] emotional story with a lot of characters feeling a lot of things,” he begins. “As a result of that, I said, ‘Let’s make this a musical. We’ve got this great first song. Let’s get Chris Leonard’s and Glen Slater, the songwriters, to give us eight or more new songs to go through here and make those the emotional benchmarks for the movie.’ That really is what started things off for me and we moved forward and we did just that. We made ourselves an animated musical… We approached it just like an old-fashioned movie musical, like Singing in the Rainor American in Paris. We just said let’s just make this an old Hollywood musical with new characters.”
As the film started to transition into a traditional musical, Asbury and his team began to consider who had the energy and enthusiasm to bring the film to life. After Kelly Clarkson joined the cast, the team saw the potential of filling the cast primarily with recording artists.
“After Kelly Clarkson came on, she took so quickly to the character,” Asbury recalls. “She really gave us herself. The character of Moxy really is Kelly Clarkson through and through. They’re one in the same. They really fit together. She even asked if we’d written the part for her. While we didn’t intentionally, from that point forward, we started writing. She became the character and it helped us a lot with Moxy’s attitude and mental state during different parts of the movie. Kelly was great for that and she was really able to relate to it. But as a result, we started to ask who could be great in these other roles that might not be a traditional actor that can give us the singing and the performance. So that sort of got the ball rolling… and the primary cast were recording artists who also were great actors.”
While developing any story comes with its own set of challenges, Asbury also believes that part of the difficulty inherent to creating a story about UglyDollslies in the fact that it’s based on a pre-existing toy line.
Says Asbury, “It [was] a challenge [to make a film based on a toy line]. In this case, I had never done a movie that there were toys that existed first. What’s difficult about that is it’s like ‘Hey, there’s this great character—let’s say it’s on Saturday Night Live—but it’s just a character. It’s almost just a costume that a guy puts on. Let’s make an entire feature film about that.’ We have to figure out who is that character, what’s important to them, and what sort of things does he/she do. With the case of UglyDolls, what was fortunate was that, while the UglyDolls were established as a toy line and there were a few things that each of them had some sort of vocation or some sort of little quirk if you knew them, it wasn’t so developed that the characters were defined. So, if we’re going to take this character, Moxie, and we’re going to really come up with a story for her in the process of trying to create a Hollywood musical, I started thinking to myself what if this were Debbie Reynolds or Judy Garland? What kind of movie would they make if they were a character that was deeply in need of something they couldn’t attain?”
“[So, I said] let’s delve into Moxie as that main character and surround her by supporting characters who help her achieve that goal…,” he continues. “I think that was helpful jump out point is because we didn’t know a lot about what the UglyDolls were all about. So, that’s a challenge because you know the characters you need in the movie, certainly the studio is telling you we really want Babo and Wage in there. So, you say, ‘Here is my chopped basket and now I have to make something with it.’ That’s sort of what it feels like at the top and then, after a while, you’re cooking and it feels better. [laughs]”
Having worked in the animation industry for almost three decades, Asbury feels incredibly fortunate for his experiences as an artist, especially in the midst of the drastic changes since the advent of 3-D CGI.
“I loved animation from the time I was a child,” he beams. “[Also,] I’ve been there working in the industry from the 2-D whirlwind resurgence in animation that happened with Little Mermaid and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I was really lucky to be in the animation business during the advent of CG and watching it begin to develop. I was able to work on Toy Storyand see this great vision that Pixar had in order to create something that rivaled the 2-D acting and emotions. Then, from Toy Story on, it’s been amazing to watch the explosion of CG. I’m sorry that 2-D has gone by the wayside as much as it has, because I think that is also an art form that should be recognized as something very valuable. In the meantime, we have to keep going forward and I know that CG is what people want to see at the moment. I do think it’s an amazing art form. The same artists that do 2-D are able to adapt to 3-D. So, the same mentality and the same thought process goes into it. It’s just a new paint brush really.”
Within the story of UglyDolls itself lies an important conversation about what it means to be yourself. Asked what he hopes families get from their experience, Asbury hopes that they can relate to the experience of the characters by accepting themselves for their quirks and uniqueness.
“I think the movie is as much about embracing yourself as others,” he states. “It’s about looking in the mirror and once you see realizing that you see is just fine. Then what you see can go out in the world and be just as happy and do just as many things as anyone else. What you see is not as important as what’s inside. Everybody is an ugly doll. I think every morning when we wake up and look in the mirror, we’re an UglyDoll. We may be a different version of that but we all have to say this is where I am today and this is what I’m going out in the world as. You have to have confidence with that. You can’t feel bad about it. Different people have different ideas of what pretty or ugly are… It never really works when you try to duplicate someone else’s version of themselves and just trying to be someone else.”
UglyDolls steps into the spotlight in theatres on May 3rd, 2019
For full audio of our interview with Kelly Asbury, click here.