This year’s Child’s Play remake should not be a Chucky movie, and it knows it.
The original Child’s Play, the 1988 slasher classic directed by Tom Holland, revolved around a cherubic “Good Guy” doll possessed by a serial killer. After being gifted to six-year-old Andy Barclay, the doll goes on a murder spree, framing the child for the crimes before trying to inhabit the boy’s body.
Midway through that film, the revelation that little Andy’s doll shares a nickname with the recently deceased Lakeshore Strangler elicited chills. Here, a robotic doll christening itself “Chucky” for no apparent reason is played for laughs – an in-joke about just how crass this reboot is.
Classic horror fans inevitably whine when their favourites are remade, but Child’s Play (2019) was more controversial than most, due to the apparent opposition of original creator Don Mancini. Mancini, who has written every previous installment and directed the last three, was not involved in this remake and was vocal in his opposition.
This sort of thing isn’t unusual for Hollywood; the complication here is, Mancini is still making in-canon Chucky sequels with his original cast. (They’re actually very good: 2013’s straight-to-DVD Curse of Chucky was a return to form for the franchise, and 2017’s Cult of Chucky took the series into excitingly strange new territory). The writer-director rightfully has no plans to retire his version of the character – there’s even a TV series in the works – and production of this reboot struck many horror fans as a jerk move. (Full disclosure: I am one of these fans).
So I couldn’t help going into 2019: A Child’s Play Odyssey with a bit of a bias – although I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The new Child’s Play is a lot of fun on its own merits, with an oddball tone and absurd levels of gore. However, it really isn’t a Chucky movie at all, and shouldn’t have bothered pretending to be.
Other than the general design of the doll, Child’s Play 2019 bears little resemblance to any of its predecessors. In this supposedly “modern” update, young Andy’s “Buddi” doll is a malfunctioning robot rather than a possessed toy with a mind of its own. (It’s an even less plausible origin story than the original’s faux-voodoo rituals, but this movie isn’t going for realism.)
The film also sees Mark Hammill replacing long-time fan favourite Brad Dourif as the voice of the killer doll. An accomplished voice actor himself, Hammill gives the character an ominous sweetness and hollow warmth that owes more to Douglas Rain’s gentle HAL 9000 than Dourif’s invective-spewing sociopath. In fact, the portrayals are so dissimilar that there’s no point pretending they’re the same being. This could have been a movie about any generic toy; the forced use of the Chucky character makes no sense other than as a branding exercise.
The presence of Chucky in body but not in spirit induces a jarring sense of cognitive dissonance; I found I was able to enjoy the movie better once I told myself that (contrary to what the marketing department at Orion Pictures wants us to believe), this is not a Child’s Play film but a strange horror-comedy about a murderous robot.
The bulk of Child’s Play (2019) plays as humour. Guileless, desperate to please, and prone to haplessly parroting profanities, the doll’s creepiness is joke fodder rather than tension-building. Andy (a teen in this iteration) and his friends spend the first chunk of the film taking advantage of the robots’s amusing glitches, and in doing so, inadvertently train him to be homicidal. (There’s perhaps a bit of commentary here on how the casual cruelty of youth is egged on by the perverse incentives of social media – the kids literally teach Chucky to wield a knife in the hopes of filming a viral video).
The kills, when they start, are completely over-the-top. In this regard, Child’s Play draws more from eighties gorefests like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (which the characters are shown watching) than its more restrained source material. Hammill’s Chucky shares his predecessor’s resourcefulness and has an even more eclectic arsenal at his disposal: designed to sync with Cloud-connected devices, the doll has access to drones, “smart” thermostats and lawnmowers, and even a self-driving car.
The movie really sings when it follows its weird ideas to their most absurd conclusions. In one ridiculous sequence, Chucky gifts Andy the skinned face of his mother’s jerk of a boyfriend; in their mad scramble to dispose of the evidence, Andy and his friends inadvertently deliver it to a police detective’s elderly mother.
But as much as the movie benefits from a complete abdication of logic, it also loses its emotional resonance. Fans of the original will remember that Mancini’s Chucky had a human heart – and in a way, his movie did too. As frightening as Charles Lee Ray was, what was truly terrifying about that film was how it played on the vulnerability of children, and the terrifying implications of being in grave danger and not being believed. The reboot tries to tap into that as well, but its overall tone is just too parodic for its more relatable terrors to resonate. And while 15-year-old Gabriel Bateman does a fine job with the material, his cynical adolescent Andy just doesn’t tug on the heartstrings as well as Alex Vincent’s traumatized first-grader. (I re-watched the original recently – it’s astounding just how well the then-child actor carries the film).
At its best, Child’s Play 2019 is like watching a ridiculous eighties slasher. I can’t help but think it would have worked better if the filmmakers had been able to tell their own killer doll story, leaving Mancini’s creation out of it.
Title: Child’s Play
Director: Lars Klevberg
Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith