Film Review: Child's Play (2019)

This is not your grandfather's Chucky, and that's a good thing - though not good enough to make the new Child's Play a good movie, just different enough to be moderately interesting before falling apart.

Lord knows we had no reason to expect anything good from a Child's Play remake. As a slasher movie villain, Chucky is ridiculous on so many levels. Most obviously, he hasn't got the body mass to be truly threatening, so the editing had to rely on insert closeups and cutaways in order to pretend that the malevolent doll could smack a full-grown adult on the head with a hammer and knock her through a window. I sat through the old films wondering why nobody simply drop-kicked Chucky into a fireplace, tossed him in a microwave, or stuffed him down a garbage disposal (the possibilities for a short YouTube spoof are truly endless). And the voodoo underpinnings were silly Hollywood nonsense (the old houngan in the first film conveniently leaves a voodoo doll of himself lying around so that Chucky can incapacitate him by breaking its legs). In short, the Child's Play franchise left one yearning for the subtle complexities of the Friday the 13th films.

Anyway, the new re-imagining of 1988'2 Child’s Play cleverly reinvents Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) as a robotic piece of  Alexa-like Artificial Intelligence, with a wireless connection to anything and everything on his local network. Working-class single-mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) can't afford the expensive "Buddi" doll, but she sweeps up a defective discard that (unbeknownst to her) has been sabotaged by a suicidal worker in the manufacturing plant in Vietnam. This plot device is only slightly more relevant than the abnormal brain in Frankenstein (1931), because most of the mayhem that follows is the result of the way Chucky (as the doll names itself) imprints on Karen's son, Andy (named after the kid in Toy Story and played by Gabriel Bateman).

Chucky (to the extent that he is self-aware - an issue the film does not address) wants to be Andy's friend till the end, and he's willing to do anything to achieve this goal; however, like someone with Asperger syndrome, Chucky has trouble forging a bond. Although he can learn from human behavior, he doesn't understand the underlying emotional content, leading to attempts at friendship that backfire: Watching Andy and his friends laugh during a viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Chucky picks up a knife and repeats some dialogue, unaware that what was funny on the TV screen is not funny in real life. Later, a cat that scratches Andy comes to an unfortunate end. Inevitably, Chucky's efforts escalate to homicide, and Andy tries to scrap Chucky. By this time, however, Chucky is acting like a malignant narcissist, for whom "friendship" must continue in order to serve his needs, regardless of what Andy wants.

What makes this scenario initially interesting is that Chucky becomes, in a sense, the physical embodiment of Andy's Shadow Self - acting out the angry impulses that Andy himself would only voice (roughly analogous to Ella in Monkey Shines). This idea held potential for something great, a coming-of-age story in which Andy realizes that the fault lies not with Chucky but himself; unfortunately, Child's Play tosses this notion out the window to focus on the generic requirements of a gore film. Chucky's first few victims make sense within the logic of the film; after that, they happen more or less to a target audience happy hungry for blood.

The killings tend to play out like outtakes from the old movies. Instead of exploiting his wireless capabilities, Chucky mostly restricts himself to slasher-style physical attacks, which make as little sense now as they did in the '80s. In a typical example, after knocking Karen's boyfriend off a ladder(a fall that breaks his legs), Chucky hides in the shrubbery for a while so that he can rustle around and build suspense instead of immediately moving in for the kill.

As silly as this scene is, it does have an interesting payoff: Chucky deliver's the victim's face to Andy like a present, in imitation of Leatherface's mask from Chainsaw 2 - another failed attempt at bonding with Andy. Instead of expressing the gratitude that Chucky expects, Andy responds by hiding the evidence of Chucky's crime.

At this point, the film falls apart. Child's Play does its best to overlook the fact that Chucky was acting out Andy's repressed wish (he hated Mom's boyfriend). Even worse, the film refuses to grapple with the fact that covering up Chucky's crimes leads directly to one death and indirectly to several others. By any reasonable standard, this makes Andy complicit not only in thought but also in action for Chucky's subsequent murders. Nevertheless, the film wants us to see him as a hero, even having him rescue a damsel-in-distress (his mother) at the end.

This rescue takes place during a ridiculous melee at a store selling the newest edition of the Buddi doll,* where Chucky finally exploits his wireless ability to send flying drones smashing into people's faces; unfortunately, the devices look more painful than lethal, despite what the makeup effects try to make us believe. After that, we're back to the same-old-same-old, in which the diminutive Chucky is mysteriously able to overpower a grown woman, but a small child can defeat him - because the screenplay says so.

It's all very hyperactive, and it provides lots of footage for a coming attractions trailer, but it does nothing to address the film's most interesting idea: that by defeating Chucky, Andy is really defeating his own alter-ego, stuffing his id monster back into the genie's lamp. I guess it was too much to expect a satisfying resolution from a Child's Play reboot, but the film's most notable surprise is that it raises expectations just high enough to disappoint them.

Footnote

  • We're supposed to be terrified that these potentially dangerous dolls are being sold to unsuspecting children, and we are supposed to laugh at the hollow reassurances from Tim Matheson (as a corporate spokesman seen only in video clips) that there is no danger. But it's hard to believe there will be any more rogue dolls after the film has gone out of its way to portray Chucky as a one-off aberration that is unlikely to recur (well, unless box office results demand a sequel, but that's another issue).
Child's Play (2019) rating
2

Bottom Line

The Child’s Play reboot is better than expected but not enough to be good – just enough to raise expectations before disappointing them.

Child’s Play (Orion Pictures, June 21, 2019). Directed by Lars Klevberg. Written by Tyler Burton Smith, based on characters created by Don Mancini. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman,  Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, Mark Hamill. Rated R. 90 mins

 

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.