Seriously, what were the odds of two films being made about a boy named Andy’s prized plaything being released on the same exact day? Opening simultaneously with Toy Story 4, the remake of classic 1988 horror film Child’s Play arrived last week to introduce a new generation to the horrors of a homicidal child’s toy.
The film begins with Karen, a single mother (Aubrey Plaza, TV’s Parks and Rec), and her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman, Lights Out) acclimating to life in a new town. Karen works in a local Walmart knock off, making ends meet while her son struggles with being bullied for being the new kid in school. Two weeks before his birthday, Karen tries to cheer Andy up with a Buddi smart doll (voiced by Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill) that someone returned to the store. Buddi is a robotic best friend in the shape of a small boy that can sync with Andy’s phone, along with pretty much anything manufactured by the Kaslan Corp., including appliances, electronics, and even other toys.
What first appears to be a defective unit names itself “Chucky” and endears itself to Andy, at least until it begins taking lethal measures to try retaining his affection. From Karen’s abusive boyfriend to the neighborhood kids her son hangs out with, everyone is a target as Chucky begins eliminating anyone (and everything) he perceives as a threat to his and Andy’s relationship. With the launch of the Buddi 2 about to hit Karen’s store, Andy must team up with his new friends to protect the people he cares for.
LEGACY OF CHUCKY
To be perfectly frank, there would be no real motivation for the 2019 Child’s Play to exist, unless it had something new to say. After all, it’s not like the original Chucky really left the pop culture zeitgeist; his original film series is still running (the 7th entry, Cult of Chucky, was released in 2017), and there’s no shortage of related merchandise to be had. Fortunately, the filmmakers’ came up with a corker of a premise in reinventing Chucky as a smart toy gone bad.
Where Chucky in the original film was the result of a serial killer using it as the voodoo-powered receptacle for his soul (after being gunned down by police in a toy store, naturally), 2019’s doll serves as the latest poster boy for technology run amok, which simultaneously makes for the film’s biggest strength, and its it greatest weakness.
Funnily enough, the very issue that caused an online uproar (that of Chucky being reimagined as a smart toy) is a concept that would be right at home on an episode of Black Mirror or even the rebooted Twilight Zone. It’s so strong a concept, in fact, that it actually makes a knife-wielding doll seem quaint by comparison.
In any case, other than the obvious brand recognition of a remake, there’s literally no reason that the villain here had to be Chucky and not, say, a smart speaker. Indeed, given the remake’s basic story, they could have easily substituted Alexa or Siri, and come up with something altogether more terrifying than trying to bridge the gap between pint-sized plastic killer and omniscient digital mass murderer.
The film’s identity crisis extends to its tone, which actually mirrors the series from which it takes its inspiration, flitting between gruesome horror (Child’s Play 1-3) and tongue-in-cheek humor (everything from Bride of Chuckie onwards). The only trouble is, the kills seen here aren’t clever enough to shock, nor interesting enough to stick in the mind once you leave the cinema. A sequence involving a face separated from its original owner had loads of opportunity for black comedy, for instance, but it is largely squandered for a couple of lame lines and a decidedly uneventful dinner scene. Amusingly, the instances of blood and gore that do get featured aren’t so much memorable for their inventiveness, but their level of viscera; what the film lacks in suspense or subtlety, it makes up for with standalone instances of violence that, with a better story, would give any decent horror flick a run for its money.
FUN AND GAMES
The only time the film is able to successfully balance its tone, concept, and franchise sensibilities is the final act, which begins with an unfortunate mascot at a midnight product launch and crescendos into a bonkers, drone-powered bloodbath that skewers consumer culture and horror tropes alike. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the situation (along with the fountains of claret it brings about) are the sort of cautionary tale and silly horror movie hybrid the rest of the flick should have aspired to.
If the film had more scenes like this to offer, it may have had a better chance of standing out. As it stands, when it comes to remakes of classic horror movies, 2019’s Child’s Play will be remembered more along the lines of 2010’s disappointing A Nightmare on Elm Street do-over than 2018’s blockbuster It reimagining—a footnote in an otherwise memorable franchise.
ANDY AND KAREN
Andy here is a 13-year old who, truth be told, would probably never in a million years be caught dead with a doll of any shape, form, or size, much less one that sings songs of affirmation in the middle of the night. Of course, even in the original (where Andy was 6), it was already a stretch that anyone would want to be friends with a doll that looked like a killer even before it was possessed. The increased age does widen the story’s scope, though, getting Andy out of the house and giving him a ragtag group of friends to share the finale with, despite their being comprised almost entirely of stereotypes with no discernible characteristics other than fat kid, black kid, and token girl. This changes the film’s dynamic considerably, making Andy a more active participant in his own story, as opposed to the glorified side character that he was back in the day, when more focus was placed on the disbelieving adults.
Audrey Plaza as Karen is pretty much what you would expect, but with a touch more underlying sweetness to her trademark cynical snark. There was no way that Plaza was going to do a reprise of Catherine Hicks (the mom from TV’s 7th Heaven, and the whale doctor from Star Trek IV) original portrayal, because, let’s face it, damsel in distress is definitely not a look that would interest her. Plaza’s Karen is loving, but tough, and absolutely won’t stand for any nonsense about a killer doll running loose. If only she had better taste in men, though.
KILLER TOY STORY
Outside of his defining role in Star Wars, Mark Hamill has built up quite the career as a voice actor, with credits covering numerous video games (Full Throttle, Kingdom Hearts III), and animated productions (Avatar: The Last Airbender). He has even carved a niche for himself with what many consider to be the definitive vocal portrayal of Batman’s nemesis The Joker, having voiced him on TV (Batman: The Animated Series), film (Mask of the Phntasm), video games (Arkham Asylum series), and theme park rides.
For a performer who made an entire second career out of playing a psychotic clown, Hamill as Chucky never oversells it; he puts his spin on the character, playing him as a toy who just wants to be loved, albeit one with a jealousy streak a mile wide and homicidal tendencies for when he doesn’t get his way. Intriguingly, this Chucky didn’t come to life with bad intentions, and a case could be made for his being a somewhat tragic figure in all of this, but the writing never rises to the level where it could actually earn our sympathies.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The darkly comic moments sprinkled throughout are mildly amusing, but aren’t enough to save this film, which ultimately can’t decide whether it wants to be a proper horror remake or an indictment of our reliance on modern technology. This isn’t to say that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but the filmmakers don’t take their revised premise far enough to justify its existence, much less craft a coherent, entertaining flick out of it. All things considered, it would have been better if they didn’t have to graft their concept onto the bones of a 30-year-old slasher flick—a movie about an evil Amazon Echo would have been awesome.
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