In 1988, Tom Holland and Don Mancini crafted a surprising horror-thriller about a serial killer who–utilizing mysterious voodoo magic–transports his soul into a popular children’s toy. The wacky premise and practical effects translated to box office success, launching a pop culture icon in Chucky and a sprawling franchise. 31 years later, original distributor MGM has remade the original film–despite the original series continuing under the watchful eye of original writer Don Mancini, with a SYFY TV series currently in development–and though it comes up with an entirely new backstory for the killer doll and stars an intriguing cast, the Child’s Play reboot feels derivative and unnecessary in all the ways that the cult classic felt fresh and boundary pushing.
It’s not that Child’s Play is a bad film, it’s just that it often feels more like a lesser episode of Black Mirror than a reimagining of one of the most well known and popular horror franchises of all time. Much of this comes from the creative team’s decision to change the origin of the killer doll from being possessed by a serial killer to simply being an out of control and evil A.I.
From the moment this plot point was revealed in the early materials for the remake, many fans asked “Why make it a Chucky film at all?” Sadly, at no point does the film answer that question, and it left this reviewer certain it would have been better as a sci-fi horror B-movie on its own merits rather than a story which often writes itself into the corner trying to fit in the box left by its predecessor and his pop culture-riffing brand.
Just like the original, the new film begins with the origin of the doll which for spoiler’s sake here we’ll call a “manufacturing defect.” After that, we’re introduced to Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), who’s still a poor, single mother attempting to provide for her young son, but the character is changed as she’s also now a neglectful but loving mom with bad taste in men.
The other major change here is that Andy is 13, and it’s a narrative choice that never really pays off aside from enabling an It / Stranger Things-style kids teen team-up later on in the film. Andy and Karen’s neighbor, Brian Tyree Henry’s Detective Mike, is easily the best and most fun character in the ensemble, although he’s also a very, very bad detective. Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) is a different beast from Brad Dourif’s Charles Lee Ray as a home help who can connect to all the Kaslan tech in their small apartment and the wider world.
The ever-encroaching reach of the Amazon-esqe Kaslan is hard to ignore as it quickly becomes clear that they make… literally everything. However, the near-future worldbuilding never really goes any further than that. At first, Andy’s new friend is just that, a companion in the lonely young boy’s world, and it works relatively well. But, ironically, the fact that director Lars Klevberg admirably uses mostly practical puppetry for the Buddi doll makes him so creepy that you can’t ignore it, making it hard to believe Andy could make a connection with him, something the script makes sure to mention multiple times. This is just one of the places where your suspension of disbelief will likely get snagged as you venture into the world of Child’s Play.
It’s odd that the set-up is so hard to believe when it’s actually far more “believable” than the concept of a serial killer transferring his spirit into a plastic doll. We live in a world where people invite surveillance into their homes and pay for it, where courts use Amazon Echo recordings to convict people in trials. Basically, in 2019 it shouldn’t be too hard to buy into an evil high tech robot turning into a psycho killer. But the problem in Child’s Play is less to do with the idea and more to do with the execution, which feels derivative and overdone, especially when it comes to Chucky’s motivations that–without spoiling too much–have already been better explored in The Twilight Zone, The Simpsons, and Eerie, Indiana.
Tonally, the film is relatively creepy though the first two acts are strangely paced, taking up far too much of the short 90 minute runtime. There are a couple of entertaining if dragged out kills that will please horror fans, but the questionable moral message of the film gets confused as it hits the third act.
Still, that third act is easily the best part of the movie and will likely lead to the film finding a very specific cult audience. This is mostly due to the fact that out of nowhere it completely leans into a hitherto unseen dark humor that riffs on the best offerings of the classic franchise without seeming unoriginal, delivering a far too brief chunk of gory, inventive, and hilarious salvation before the credits roll.
You could definitely have fun watching Child’s Play, and for the younger generation who’ve never seen the original and might not connect with a six-year-old protagonist, this might be a big hit. Yet the film never manages to recreate the paranoia, fear, and literal horror of the original, that was really the ’88 movie’s biggest achievement. You should’ve never been scared of Chucky, but with Dourif’s scathing voicework and Holland’s tight direction, you always were.
Child’s Play is fine, but it would’ve been far better had it not been packaged in the iconic overalls of the still ongoing horror franchise. The film is always at its strongest when it’s not trying to fit into the world of Child’s Play and could have been a real piece of B-movie magic had it been an original sci-fi horror flick instead of a retread of a far better film.
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