Kelly Asbury looks like he’s having the time of his life.
The veteran director of animated films like Gnomeo and Juliet and Shrek 2 sits in the sun at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons like a Cheshire cat, a gleeful smile across his face. Having worked for years on Disney and Pixar films like Toy Story and The Black Cauldron, Asbury graduated to directing with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmeron which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Asbury’s latest film, Ugly Dolls teams him with some extraordinary talent. The story finds a plucky group of the titular characters journeying out of their city of Uglyville to discover the City of Perfection, a place where all dolls go to become perfect. Yet just like the Ugly Dolls, there’s more to Perfection than meets the eye. The voice cast includes Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton, Janelle Monae, Wanda Sykes, Nick Jonas and Pitbull.
Queerty nabbed a few minutes with Asbury to talk about the film and it’s themes of self-acceptance, loving the unique and higher ideals of perfection. Ugly Dolls opens in cinemas May 3.
This is a project with a long history, and it was an existing toy line. What apprehensions did you have in approaching an established property, and one that already had a certain artistic vision attached to it?
You know, I had just come off of hiatus. I did Smurfs: The Lost Village, and it’s interesting: It’s really the first movie that I’d done that at the box office didn’t do well. I felt the pain that I had never felt before. You work on movies, and they go on a long time. You have a team of people and everyone is putting their best foot forward. And of course, nobody wants a movie to not do well. You want people to see it. So I’d never quite experienced what that felt like. So after a little time off, I was ready to go back to work. I was putting together some pitches. Then out of the blue, I get a phone call from my lawyer who says “they want to talk to you about this movie Ugly Dolls.”
That’s a good call to get.
I’d heard of it. I said, “I thought Robert Rodriguez was doing that.” She said, “I don’t know what’s going on. They want to talk to someone to direct it.” So I went in and talked to them. I’m sure they were talking to other people as well. But I saw the beginning, and I saw the ending, which I really loved. There were elements flying around we could use. Allison Peck had just come on to write it, and she was working with our head of story Paul McAvoy. But it really was this team effort. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time. A film like this is usually a five-year process; this was 14 months. Essentially, every animated feature, the last 8 months, your hair is on fire. You don’t think you’re going to get it done. When I started, we jumped into that mode. It was all hands on deck. It was a lot of people working together with a common goal to meet a deadline. And we did it.
How much did the story change when you came on then?
I think for me the elements of the story simplified. We consolidated a lot of characters. It also was not a musical. This world requires a lot of rules and a lot of inner dialogue with characters. I didn’t want scenes of characters talking about themselves or having long conversations. That’s a proven killer in animation. So I looked at it and I said, “Let’s do a full-on musical. Let’s structure this like an old-fashioned Hollywood musical.” You know, there’s a girl at the top, nothing will stop her, and she goes through every single thing you can go through, the stakes get higher, and until the end of the film, you don’t know if she will succeed. That became a sort of template. So it was my idea to bring music in. By the time we were finished, we had, I think, eight songs. It did help us navigate the film and get the story that everyone wanted to tell.
Did you have a cast at that point?
The only person we had at that point was Pitbull.
And he was always going to be UglyDog. So we started developing the characters. Different people were thought about for everyone. When we came up with the idea of Kelly Clarkson, [we knew] she’d be perfect. And Kelly said “Did you write this for me? Because it sounds like me.” And she really is Moxie in every way. Then we started thinking someone friendly and fatherly for Ox, and Blake Shelton came on. So we just cast the movie paying attention to what’s the best actor to fill these parts. Sometimes we were surprised. Nick Jonas we thought would be great with a song. I know he’s a good actor. I know he’s a good singer. But he dimensionalized Lou as a villain in a way that you sort of like him and you hate him all at the same time. I really wanted that. I like villains you can laugh at.
It’s interesting that you use a lot of non-actors in the film. Kelly’s not known as an actor, Blake’s not known as an actor. They’re singers.
I think we got lucky there. We didn’t want another person singing. I think we just said “Let’s see what Kelly Clarkson brings.” We talked to her, and she was great. We just had these happy results that nobody could predict.
How does that change your approach to direction?
I read with all of them. They never read together. We’d get suggestions from the producers, and we’d work in the booth together if there was something we were trying to find. The great thing about Kelly—and actually, I learned this about all the recording artists—they’re much more comfortable with a microphone and a booth. They understand how one word is like a note or an octave. They approached it, all of them, knowing I can do that better. Let me do that again, I can do it better.
The theme of diversity and inner beauty plays a huge role in your story. Imperfections make us special, beauty lies within. Imperfections can make us special. That’s very reflective of Hollywood right now, where we’re seeing more diversity across the board, and these films are doing well.
At the same time, it’s so ironic because it seems to be at odds with where society is, at least politically. There’s a hostility toward diversity. Were you conscious to this when you were making the film? What was your approach to the philosophical issues that raises?
Look, the first objective for me is: always make it entertaining. Make it funny. I like things to be light-hearted. If there is a message, I never want to hammer it. This movie because it’s named Ugly Dolls, and because they’re all happy about being ugly, and they think that’s perfectly wonderful, it sort of is immediately like you think that ugly is a great thing? The thing you’ll have to learn is not everyone feels that way. These characters never knew adversity. It’s really, if I had to boil down this movie, it’s about learning to be kind. If anyone walks out even a little bit changed, we’ve done our job.
The other major theme in the film is community, and how having a supportive community is so vital to health and happiness. At this point in our national discourse, we’re having a crisis of community where we see people joining extremist groups to feel like they have a sense of belonging. Incels, the Alt-Right, white nationalism, etc. Was that something you were conscious of making this film? Lou, as a villain, really resembles Trump.
It was not something we were conscious of. This was no attempt to make a statement [about Trump]. But you know, if that’s what people learn when they walk away from it, we can’t say that we engineered that. Look, a bully is a bully. Every bully has a reason they’re like they are. Hopefully, that will be something that makes someone understand a little bit better. We all have all these different characters in ourselves at different times in our lives. My favorite film ever is To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of that movie, when the narration says “Atticus always said you never really know somebody until you put on their shoes and walk around in them.” That is what this movie is saying. It’s just a matter of realizing that everyone has a life. Everyone has a background. Just because they’re doing something you might not agree with doesn’t mean they don’t have a reason.
And we are living in a time where we’re being told sometimes to close our minds. I just don’t understand that. But it’s not my place as a filmmaker. I made a commercial, animated film. I hope it’s good. I gauge a film by what I feel and learn from it, even if it’s something tiny.
Let it be said too, the more I think about Lou, Nick Jonas’ character, he’s the most complex character in the film.
The more I see how tragic he is. Rather than embrace his uniqueness, he tries to hide it to the point of destroying everyone around him. The movie also leaves a question about his fate. What happens to him?
I think Lou is presented with one of his worst fears at the end of this story. My hope is as time passes, Lou accepts who he is so that he can accept others. You can’t do it unless you’re ready to look in the mirror and face what you see and not care what other people see, you can’t open your heart. So I hope he learns his lesson.
We’ll find out when you come back to do Ugly Dolls 2.
We’ll see, yeah.
You’ve worked on a number of incredible if overlooked, animated films.
I’m very lucky.
Including The Black Cauldron. If Disney is going to pillage their animated movies for live action, that is one they ought to remake.
That’s one that, of all the ones they’ve remade, why don’t they remake that one? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
What’s your most underrated of your films?
I will say, the movie I wish people had seen more is called James and the Giant Peach.
[Across the room, the publicist swoons. We laugh.]
It was ignored. And you never hear about it. I loved working with Henry Selick, and it was such an enriching experience. That film is so tactile and so craftsmanlike. It’s a gem that no one has ever recognized. I’m really happy with that movie.
Ugly Dolls opens May 3.