We live in a world that says what matters most is looking good on the outside. But in his new animated movie UglyDolls, veteran director Kelly Asbury (Smurfs: The Lost Village, Shrek 2, Gnomeo & Juliet) helps viewers remember that it really is what’s inside that counts. I recently had a chance to talk to Kelly about the movie’s themes and more.
Adam Holz: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to us at Plugged In today.
Kelly Asbury: Well, thank you, I’m happy to be here.
Holz: Kelly, tell us a little bit about UglyDolls and how you got involved in this project.
Asbury: UglyDolls is the story of a group of plush dolls that don’t know that they are actually rejects from a toy factory. They live in a special world called Uglyville, and everything about their lives is wonderful. They think that the word ugly is good. They think it’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with it. But when they come to a place where they find out the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily think [being] ugly is such a great thing—in fact, they think it’s a bad thing—it makes them reassess their entire thought process. It makes them have to figure out, well, how do they feel about that? How do they feel about the fact that they are not as great as they thought they were? Or, shall we say we say,
as perfect as they thought they were. They find out they’re anything but perfect.
Then, of course, they realize that ugly and pretty are just words. [They realize] that those words mean different things to different people, and that they happen to be just as perfect as anyone else in their own right. Ultimately, [they realize] that perfect doesn’t exist.
Holz: That theme of chasing perfection seems pretty important in a world that places such a high value on looking good. Can you tell me a bit more about this theme, and why it might be especially important for young viewers to hear?
Asbury: You know, I think it’s important for all people to hear the message today, because I think the overall message that this movie is really saying is, “Let’s all be kind to each other, no matter who we are.” Let’s forget about what’s outside and pay more attention to what’s inside. I also think we need to learn to be kind to ourselves when we look in the mirror. Give ourselves a break. Forget what all the television people, and all the magazines, and all the so-called “perfect” models in all the ads tell us. Because, they are people too. … Not everyone is living a perfect life, even if they’re beautiful-looking in your eyes. So it’s a message for everyone of all ages and all types, to say, “I am who I am, and that’s as perfect as I need to be.” I’ll never be anyone’s idea of completely perfect, but neither will anyone else. It’s an unattainable goal to be perfect.
Holz: That’s a good word for all of us, because I think that even some of us who are old enough to know better can fall victim to the comparison trap sometimes.
Asbury: Oh, I do every it day, and I have to stop myself. You know, when you make movies, all you do is compare what you’re doing to all the [other] movies that are coming out, and you have to realize that, “Look, I made this movie, and it’s the story I wanted to tell, and it’s here.” … I’m proud of it, and that’s what I have to stay with.
Holz: You have a great cast of voice talent here, such as Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae, Blake Shelton, Pitbull, Chalie XCX; and then you’ve got some other actors and actresses, such as Wanda Sykes, Emma Roberts—it’s quite a cast. Talk to me about working with such a huge cast voicing these characters and what some of your favorite moments were.
Asbury: Well the great thing in animation—at least, feature animation—for the director is I get to work with these people very individually. That’s because we never get them all together; it’s almost impossible. So their parts are all recorded, and it’s catch-as-catch-can. If Blake Shelton is available, but he’s in Nashville, I’ll fly to Nashville with my team, and we record him there. If Janelle is in Atlanta or New York, we fly to those places and get her in a recording studio. So I get a chance to work one-on-one with these people in a way that’s very unique. There’s very little interference going on, there’s very little distraction, and we’re able to really talk about the characters and have sort of in-depth discussions about what’s needed.
What was great on this movie is that a lot of my cast members were recording artists. They were very comfortable in a recording studio. That microphone was their tool, and they understood, more so than a lot of actors do, about retakes and fixing things and trying something else. … They actually embraced that, because they do that with their music. It was very helpful to have these people who were so well versed and who understood the recording process. That was a wonderful thing for this particular movie, because we [were] making discoveries as we went along in many cases.
Holz: So I have often wondered and perhaps some of our Plugged In audience has, too, how is being a director in an animated movie different than being a director in a live-action movie?
Asbury: Well, you know I’ve never directed a live-action film, but I have a lot of friends who have. And we’ve talked about the subject. And they’ve directed animation and live action. And they said the main difference is that [animation is] slower. It’s all the same skillsets. It’s all the same things that you need to have on hand and the knowledge and the answers you have to ready and the decisions have to be there. But it’s on a much longer basis for animation. And everything takes like triple the amount of time that it would for a live-action film. Animation is a very long marathon, and live-action is a very quick sprint, but all of it trying to get the same kind of work done. Because you’re creating something from nothing. I think it’s a very similar job. But I think a lot of times animation directors go into live action feeling overwhelmed by the speed at which they have to work. The difference is the tempo of your job changes immensely.
Holz: I’d like to finish with a two-part question: What do you think is unique about UglyDolls, and what do you hope audiences take away after seeing it?
Asbury: I think what’s unique about UglyDolls is that, a) it’s not a movie of characters that look like perfect Barbie dolls walking around talking; it’s not a movie with princes and princesses singing. It’s a movie with characters that really look abstract and strange, and they’re singing and being part of a very meaningful story that I think is a little more in depth than people might give it credit for on the surface. So just because it’s called UglyDolls doesn’t mean it’s an ugly movie. And I hope people go see and walk out feeling that they’ve been surprisingly entertained. And, again, I hope they feel just a little bit better about themselves and the people around them, and they have a great time doing it.