Lars Klevberg and Tyler Burton Smith’s Child’s Play is not so much a reboot or remake. It is more of a new film with a Chucky skin layered on. The Child’s Play brand is well-known. Killer children’s doll kills. A simple premise.
Smith’s script changes many aspects surrounding this premise. The Buddi toy, even though it looks like a doll from the late ’80s, is a toy for the modern era. It is a home-connecting device, voice activated like a Google Home or an Amazon Alexa. It connects to your television, stereo, electrical system, etc.
Chucky (Mark Hamill), the doll in question, is gifted to teenage Andy (Gabriel Bateman) by his mother (Aubrey Plaza), who works at the return counter of the Zed Mart that is stuffed to the brim with Buddi dolls. Instead of being possessed by the soul of a ruthless killer, however, this Chucky is a factory reject that got shipped out anyway. A disgruntled fired employee shuts off Chucky’s safety mechanisms, before committing suicide.
As a result, the personality of Chucky is much different than in the original series of films. He doesn’t know to be a killer; he has to learn it. Andy is his best and only friend, and he will do anything to make Andy happy, even if that means hurting those around him.
It is an intriguing take on the IP. Initially, the concept of a remake of the original Child’s Play was, considering the original series is still creating new films in their canon, a headscratcher. That the last Child’s Play film, The Cult of Chucky, was a lukewarm entry, Child’s Play (2019) seemed like it would be the worst of both worlds: a shoddy imitator that has no real connection to the original body of work.
Instead, the new spin on the premise gives Child’s Play a chance to breathe as its own film. It is a good, bold choice, and I can appreciate it. What is strange, then, is how the film ignores some of its crucial changes and relies on some tropes from previous Child’s Play films that don’t necessarily fit into this new premise.
For a film whose first scene introduces the idea that these Buddi dolls can connect to your phones and other devices, ultimately hinting at the idea that Chucky can control all of these devices, not much is done with the idea. Most of the film takes place in Andy’s apartment, where Andy’s mother does not make enough money to own other smart devices created by the company that manufactures Buddi dolls, Kaslan. It isn’t until the last act of the movie where this idea comes to the fore in a meaningful way.
Instead of technology, Chucky will often go back to the tried and true method of previous films (i.e. kitchen knives). But this is a choice clearly lifted out of the IP, and it supplants other creative takes on horror movie violence that Smith writes in. Without getting into too much gritty detail about the gory deaths in the film, it is evident that most of the deaths staged by Chucky would appear as accidents if he didn’t go on to stab their already dead corpses dozens of times.
Given this is a film where almost nobody believes Andy about the destructive nature of his doll, it would make sense to write in a Chucky who is crafty enough to make the deaths appear like accidents. In not doing this, it shortens the intelligence of these doubting characters.
In particular, the detective (Brian Tyree Henry) who lives down the hall from Andy and his mother is, frankly, terrible at his job. The incompetent police is a slasher movie trope, and this character’s bad choices could have been played for laughs. But it isn’t. It is a missed opportunity in a horror comedy that is never afraid to go for the jugular.
And it truly is a cruel comedy, the darkest of dark. For some, this will be a perfectly macabre take on the Child’s Play franchise, which is known for becoming tongue-in-cheek in later installments. Certainly this is not a premise that needs to be taken seriously, and I would prefer a film of this nature to know what it is and not shy away from the humor therein. In the case of the grisly gags in Child’s Play (2019), though, they didn’t rub me the right way.
The one exception is a gag involving a wrapped present, of sorts, which ends up in the wrong hands. That is a discrete comic sketch that is humorous and macabre without being overtly off-putting.
All in all, the acting in the film matches the tone fairly well. Bateman does a great job at playing this situation earnestly. As tongue in cheek as the movie is, this scenario is not a joke for his character, and he plays it accordingly. Same goes for Plaza’s Karen, who has a wry sense of humor but takes pains to make their situation the best for Andy. Karen’s relationships are surprisingly complex, given the nature of the film.
Hamill, too, is a good choice for the Buddi doll voice. A known voice actor, Hamill has an interesting approach to the character. It isn’t the menacing growls that come out of Brad Dourif’s Chucky (a good voice acting performance in its own right, to be clear). It is the innocent voice of a child’s toy without a filter. Only near the end does the performance turn to one of menace, and this is a less frightening approach than the innocence of a toy that doesn’t know better.
Child’s Play (2019) is no earth-shattering re-imagination of the franchise. But if a remake needed to be done (did it?) this was an admirable way to handle it. It is different enough to be its own thing, and it only slightly leans back on its IP to tell its story. It may not land every tonal beat, but it swings for the fences with its horror comedy take. The story-telling can be sloppy and the characters’ intelligence are stunted by a lack of time taken to make the murders a mystery (as in the first Child’s Play film).
Also, I can’t think of another film that more effectively uses an allusion to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. And that earns it some points in my book.
Child’s Play: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)