Written by: Tyler Burton Smith (screenplay), Don Mancini (characters)
Directed by: Lars Klevberg
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, and Gabriel Bateman
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Something is wrong with Chucky."
Does a Child’s Play remake necessarily need to feature Chucky? It’s a question that’s been on my mind since MGM announced its intent to revisit Don Mancini and Tom Holland’s genre staple, which went on to spawn six sequels (plus an upcoming television series) and make an icon out of its killer doll, so much so that Chucky’s name has been headlining the franchise for 20 years now. Frankly, it feels like he’s outgrown the Child’s Play branding because Mancini’s series has very much become its own idiosyncratic thing. However, he certainly left behind a fertile sandbox for an imaginative filmmaker to exploit since there’s numerous stories to be told about a child’s toy going haywire and causing death and destruction.
The minds behind Child’s Play only seem to half get this, though: they’ve done a fine job of updating the premise, almost to the sweet spot where it’d be just recognizable enough without being completely unfaithful had they not insisted on keeping a half-assed re-imagining of Chucky around. That puts us in a weird place: here we have this perfectly fun, sometimes downright inspired Child’s Play film where Chucky himself is like an albatross, constantly reminding you that you’re watching something that’s inherently off-brand. It’s sort of like generic junk food: yeah, maybe it tastes almost the same, but there’s a nagging sense that it’s not the real thing.
To be fair, Child’s Play does its best to immediately wipe the slate clean: no longer the tale of a serial killer’s attempt to cheat death by transferring his soul to a doll via voodoo, this one begins with a disgruntled Vietnamese sweatshop worker hacking a Buddi doll on his assembly line. Not just any ordinary doll, Buddi is a flagship product of Kaslan industries, a monolithic tech conglomerate whose products are integrated into every aspect of life. Less a toy and more a walking, talking version of Amazon’s Alexa, the Buddi doll pledges to be a faithful, helpful companion—so long as he’s programmed correctly. However, in a scene that feels taken straight out of that Simpsons episode about the killer Krusty doll, this disgruntled worker removes all of the safety precautions, resulting in a doll with no filters and an askew personality.
Eventually, the defective doll winds up in the hands of Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza), an overworked single mom doing the best to grit her way through a crummy retail job. She’s recently moved to a new town with Andy (Gabriel Bateman), her disillusioned, lonely 13-year-old son who initially brushes off his mom’s gift, dismissing it as kid’s stuff since a new model is due out soon. After giving it a shot, though, he warms up to the doll, and, in a cheeky exchange, tries to name it Han Solo. The doll’s having nothing of it, though, and dubs itself Chucky (because brand recognition, you see) before setting out to be Andy’s very best friend. Because his programming is essentially a blank slate, Chucky becomes extremely possessive over Andy and begins to take some of his off-hand comments regarding his pesky cat and his mom’s jerk-ass boyfriend a little bit too literally.
Chucky gets a boost of sorts from another familiar horror icon when Andy and his friends watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and laugh through every gore-soaked minute of the thing, causing the doll to assume all violence is hilarious and desirable. I know it’s meant to be a tip of the ol’ butcher knife, but I couldn’t help but notice the subtle irony of the situation. When it was released on video in the UK, Child’s Play 3 came under fire for allegedly inspiring a tragic murder; now, nearly 30 years later, we have a Child’s Play movie where Chucky becomes a psychotic murderer because he’s imitating cinematic violence.
It’s an interesting turn of events that I wish had more thought behind it, which is largely true of much of Child’s Play. Screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith obviously has a lot at his disposal to explore, most notably our overdependence on technology and how it’s affecting children. Aside from a couple of sight gags and a throwaway line about Chucky’s growing self-awareness resembling the plot of every killer robot movie, Smith is content to just let these possibilities sort of drift around the edges. The final product—which often feels a bit rushed and edited down to the bone—doesn’t seem to too interested in anything beyond the premise’s potential as a slasher movie.
This, of course, is totally fair, especially since the slashing is top-notch. Chucky doesn’t fuck around, as he commits a slew of brutal, elaborate murders, including one that feels like an instant classic. Let’s just say it involves Christmas lights, broken shins, a tiller, and a terrific nod to Leatherface. I audibly gasped--twice. Because this particular victim—and at least one more—absolutely deserves his grisly fate, director Lars Klevberg invites you to delight in most of the carnage. Child’s Play takes a slight cue from Mancini’s later efforts: it might fall quite short of the pure camp of Bride and Seed, but it has a demented sense of humor that teases some fairly wicked, darkly humorous moments.
Some—like Andy and his friends having to deal with Chucky’s sick idea of a gift—don’t quite go all the way; others—like a department store murder that unfolds in front of children—go all-in. At its best, Child’s Play is a goddamn riot, a gleefully sadistic throwback to unrepentantly violent slasher movies that were repulsive and thrilling in equal measure. Klevberg charges the formula with a frenzied energy, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. His film never drags, particularly once Chucky becomes a murder-bot and starts dispensing with the cast; unlike the original film, it barely toys with the idea of pinning the blame on Andy and building suspense around Chucky. There’s maybe half a beat where some characters suspect Andy has made the entire thing up, but it’s quickly dismissed in favor of more mayhem.
At its worst, then, Child’s Play is perhaps a bit too breezy and underserves an impressive cast that you wish had a little bit more to do. Plaza’s wry, too-cool-for-school persona fits well here: she and Andy have an unconventional relationship built on a snarky but good-humored rapport. Brian Tyree Henry assumes the role of Detective Norris, who’s already around Andy’s apartment building tending to his mother (Carlease Burke); he’s introduced busting Andy’s balls about being the weird loner kid before taking a vested interest in all the slayings occurring in and around the building. His witty demeanor gives him a different presence than Chris Sarandon, but he’s no less dignified and cool once he realizes the gravity of the situation. The script undercuts him and Plaza the most—you sense there’s a version of Child’s Play that allows them to really reckon with these bizarre murders that Andy might be wrapped up in. This version’s mostly in a rush to have them confront Chucky during the climax, effectively skipping over any dramatic potential.
That climax is where you feel like Child’s Play leaves the most on the table. In a clever turn of events, Chucky looks to crash the big reveal of the new Buddi model at the local department store by hijacking all the new dolls and an assortment of gadgets. It’s not even hard to imagine the potential here, with haywire drones and killer teddy bears being let loose on an entire crowd of unsuspecting shoppers. Imagine the climax of Aja’s Piranha, only with Chucky orchestrating the carnage. What a shame it is, then, that what happens here is so anticlimactic: with the exception of a nice bit involving a drone propeller, the climax is disappointing, right down to Andy’s final, all-too-terse confrontation with Chucky. One of the most memorable aspects of the original was Chucky’s nigh-invincibility: that fucker just wouldn’t stop, even when reduced to a charred husk. You’ll find nothing of that sort here since this film is in such a weird hurry to wrap things up.
The slapdash script and editing also victimizes Andy’s friends to a certain extent. His quickly befriends Falyn and Pugg (Beatrice Kitsos & Ty Cosinglio), a couple of rambunctious tweens whose presence unfortunately diminishes as the film rolls on; along, the way a couple of more kids (Marlon Kazadi & Anantjot S. Aneja) join the group, seemingly so the climactic sequence can lean into those Stranger Things vibes without totally earning them. You get this great hero shot of the four kids ready to face down Chucky, but I can’t help but feel like it’d mean more if we got to spend more time with them. Each of the actors radiates personality, and it would have been nice to see them play a larger role throughout. Again, the final sequence begs for an outlandish showdown but stops a little short of embracing how insane this all should be.
Then there’s Chucky himself, effectively the elephant in the room for the duration of Child’s Play. Unlike the marketing—which has seemingly shielded the public from this “new” vision—the film itself wants you to get used to him early. Within a couple of shots, you’re facing down this weird, dead-eyed doll that’s just recognizable enough as Chucky, but also just off enough to bug you. Once he comes to life, Mark Hamill does his best to make the role his own—at least as much as he can given that his voice is being poured into somebody else’s familiar wardrobe.
At times, his cackle almost captures Brad Dourif’s signature mania, but his turn is largely more muted and detached: his Chucky is genuinely trying to please in his own demented way, so Hammill affects some bizarre combination of HAL-9000 and an actual doll. It works, especially since this Chucky is a different beast from his predecessor: it’s a misguided Frankenstein monster that truly doesn’t know any better, which gives this Child’s Play a little bit of a different vibe, at least until it degenerates into Chucky going nuts and needing to be put down.
In many ways, Child’s Play does exactly what you want from a remake: it honors the general premise and makes some doting nods towards the original but largely does its own thing; however, it may be a little bit too beholden in the design of Chucky himself, which invites some pretty unfortunate comparisons. As decent as this knock-off is, it’s tough getting past a mental hurdle that wouldn’t exist with a more bold redesign. It reminds me a lot of the corner Platinum Dunes back themselves in with their Nightmare remake: I suppose the general consensus is that these icons should be recognizable, even if they give off the whiff of a cheap imitation. I fully admit that this is a weird, personal hang-up that isn’t likely to be shared by most viewers.
Fortunately, though, Child’s Play is a damn sight better than that lifeless retread down Elm Street: it’s slick, clever, and bustling with the deranged mean streak that’s defined this franchise. Brendan Uegama’s candy-colored photography and Bear McCreary’s spooky score guide the film’s playful, roadside carnival ride sensibilities: this is a film that knows it exists to deliver blood-spattered scares and demented humor and does it at a perhaps too jaunty pace. Does it completely wash away the distasteful manner in which MGM effectively hijacked this property without Mancini’s blessing? Maybe not, but, that's ultimately just noise that doesn’t really affect the final product, which does a fairly decent job of standing on its own once you make peace with nu-Chucky.
Besides, with Mancini’s own TV project in the works, we’re left with the rare case where we’re getting the best of both worlds: a worthy remake and a continuation of the original. Somehow it’s fitting that Chucky, the plucky little underdog who endured in the shadow of his slasher contemporaries will persist in such a strange, unprecedented manner. As always you can’t keep a Good Guy—or a good Buddi—down.
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