Scratch Chucky off the list of horror icons who’ve yet to be rebooted. The Child’s Play series has previously been notorious in horror fandoms for it’s firm continuity, with series star Brad Dourif and series creator Don Mancini having a hand in every installment. Which has all changed with 2019’s Child’s Play, a hard reboot that changes the origins as well as the motivations of the miniature psycho. Pivoting away from the black comedy and camp of the original continuity, the newest film is a feature length Black Mirror episode where we see why we probably shouldn’t leave a super-powered A.I. around our children.
After we witness the deliciously absurd origin of Chucky in a tech sweatshop, we’re introduced to young teen Andy (Gabriel Bateman). He’s an introverted loner whose best friend is his mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza). At one point, Karen states (yep, you guessed it!!!) “You promised me you were going to try to make friends!” Look, this is all tired plotting, but there is an interesting angle at play if you consider the irony of the persistent loneliness many feel in a technological world that is more connected than ever. However, that’s way too ambitious of a theme for this film to tackle which soon becomes a trend we’ll talk about later.
Wanting to give Andy a gift to cheer him up, Karen uses her job at a local toy store to finagle her way into owning one of the defective “Buddi” dolls. She ends up getting the Mach 1, old-news version of the doll and brings the creepy looking troll to a perplexed Andy. For why would someone his age want a doll? However, this doll is all smart-phoned out, with voice activation, an A.I., and the ability to wirelessly connect to all Kaslan products (the makers of the Buddi doll). You can do everything except watch movies on the doll, although maybe the Buddi 5 will rectify that.
After warming up to the doll (who names himself Chucky), Andy and Chucky begin to bond. Although, Andy is clearly taking things casual while Chucky is prepared to lock this boy down. Meanwhile, Andy does end up making a couple of friends from the neighborhood who end up taking a brief liking to Chucky as well. Overall, almost no one questions the potential danger that an A.I., capitalistic product represents which mirrors our real world comfort with smartphones and wireless internet. Not until Chucky starts going about all the wrong ways to please Andy. There are subtle nods here, one involving a scene where the kids watch a Texas Chainsaw sequel, that potentially references how the technology around us is designed to learn and act on our perceived preferences. But again, this movie ain’t too bright so it’s all surface level, accidental commentary.
What proceeds that is further descent into formulaic slasher territory. Once we get to the ending, the film is basically doing a bland, bereft version of the finale to Child’s Play 2. Which is puzzling; if so much effort is put into making the setup of the film different from the original film(s), why are we eventually headed for the same destination as those movies? This isn’t to say that Chucky shouldn’t be a knife wielding menace, as that’s what everyone is paying for, but surely we can depict this in fresh ways that aren’t reminiscent of previous installments?
The issues of the film typically either fall under story direction or tone. The premise is legitimately interesting, but needs more nuance in order to satisfy it’s potential. Horror truly succeeds when it can infect your brain and imagination, to produce a seemingly irrational level of anxiety. Child’s Play never quite gets there because the terror is too literal, and thus there is no anxiety to play off of. Children in the real world are gifted smartphones and the access to the entire world’s content via the internet, but the film seems unaware of the narrative power it has in it’s hands.
Then there is the tone, which is consistent but mostly dull. The film chooses to play up the comedic aspects of the script, keeping in line with the franchise, but is rarely ever funny. There’s is a barrage of corny jokes (both intentional and unintentional, but they all land with a whimper), mostly shepherded by Detective Mike (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta) who has the unenviable task of trying to pull off the worst dialogue in the script. The film is usually only funny when you’re not sure if what you’re watching is a joke or not. At one point, a character has posession of Chucky’s overalls and sniffs them, prompting a audible WTF moment from my audience. Perhaps we’d had been better served if the movie had just embraced bizarre performances like that instead of being so predictably restrained.
There are 3 bright spots which I’ll highlight. For starters, the kills are brief but gruesome. The relationship between Andy and Karen is cute, even if it rarely develops forward. And then there’s the star himself, Chucky, voiced by Mark Hamill. Hamill’s performance, unsurprisingly, is pretty damn good. He’s no Brad Dourif, but those comparisons are almost futile since they’re not even playing the same character. Dourif played Charles Lee Ray, a criminal trapped inside a doll. Hamill is playing a sentient robot, and his performance is wonderfully sympathetic, childish, and creepy when it calls for it. If you’re going to revamp the character of Chucky, this isn’t a bad way to put a new (er… different) spin on it. Just next time, I hope the filmmakers realize their fresh ideas don’t have to stop with the killer.