As hard as it may be, it’s best to view the new Child’s Play without any expectation that the film relates at all to the long-running franchise. Other than the doll’s red hair, infamous striped shirt, and fondness for a kitchen knife, the remake has little to do with Don Mancini’s original creation and its many sequels. There are some nods to the first film, but other than that, Child’s Play stands on its own and is a surprisingly decent remake, one that revamps the killer doll story and makes it relevant for 2019 by focusing on AI.
Director Lars Klevberg’s film features an especially strong performance by Gabriel Bateman as Andy Barclay, an angst-ridden teen who scoffs when his mom (Aubrey Plaza) brings home the Buddi doll as a gag gift after someone returns it to Zed Mart where she slaves away, working doubles as a single mom. When the trailer first dropped, I kept wondering why a teen would want anything to do with a doll and why they made Andy so much older than the original version of the character. Yet, as an outcast, Andy eventually bonds with the doll, whose AI capabilities make it a better-suited companion for a lonely teen than the original incarnation of Chucky. That said, there are some initial plot points that are a stretch. When Andy fires up the doll and it asks to be named, he says Han Solo, but the doll repeats Chucky, which sounds nothing like what Andy said. Perhaps the point here is to illustrate that the AI is going to make its own decisions, but more likely, this scene shows how the remake is beholden to the Child’s Play name and because of that, it has to reach at times to stay within the lines.
Andy’s loneliness, meanwhile, is compounded by the fact he has a hearing disability and has to wear an outdated hearing aid. He spends his time hanging out by himself, slumped in the hallway, playing games on his phone, too timid to chat with other kids in the apartment building. It’s hard not to feel bad for Andy and his mom, who essentially begs him to make friends while she works at a retail job she despises just to pay the bills. Because of this core plot line, Mark Hamill’s version of Chucky is a totally different take compared to Brad Dourif’s voice work. Hamill’s version adds pathos to the character, who just wants to be Andy’s friend to the point that he’s eventually willing to kill anyone who harms Andy or threatens their friendship. To a lonely kid, having a doll who listens and doesn’t judge him is initially positive, until, of course, the doll starts murdering people in creative fashion, first with a kitchen knife and then by unleashing its full AI capabilities. By the end of the film, Hamill rages and grows closer to the foul-mouthed Chucky that Dourif made famous.
Gabriel Bateman as Andy and Chucky, voiced by Mark Hamill
At first, the Buddi doll is a blank slate, but ultimately it misconstrues human emotions, which leads to a killing spree. In one of the best scenes, the doll watches Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with Andy and a few friends from down the hall. As Chucky watches the splatters of blood on TV and observes the friends reacting with laughter, he assumes that pain and bloodshed bring them pleasure. In another scene, when Andy says he wishes his mother’s boyfriend would go away, Chucky takes the words literally. Generally, the film is heavy in its messaging regarding the dangers of AI, especially the point that AI will never be able to fully comprehend the complexities and nuances of human emotions. This take on a well-known character is a solid upgrade.
As for the kills, the film features a few gory scenes, including one early butchering that involves a lawnmower and Christmas lights. Overall, though, there is some general restraint, moments when the camera pulls away just as Chucky raises his knife in the air and plunges it into a victim multiple times. The gore is certainly not excessive, no where near Texas Chainsaw 2 levels, especially for a slasher flick. The AI capabilities of the doll make for some unique kills, however.
Regarding tone, the film is much brighter than the initial 1988 film, which is awash in gray colors. Both films are set in Chicago, and the 2019 version features Andy and friends walking through seedy neighborhoods, but it doesn’t have the same bleakness. Even the doll, which is fairly CGI heavy and features an altered face with a bigger head and wider eyes, always looks new and clean, despite coming home to Andy in a battered box after a customer return. The brightness, however, fits the film, which stresses the point that we always desire the latest technology. Heck, before Andy even unwraps the Buddi doll from its package, Zed Mart is on the verge of stocking the shelves with newer and better Buddi 2 dolls, and in one of the first scenes featuring Andy and his mom on screen together, he complains that he needs a new phone.
Child’s Play is a surprisingly good mainstream horror film, bolstered by strong performances by Plaza, Hamill, and Bateman, despite all of the drama surrounding the remake and the fact that Mancini and Dourif plan to continue the original franchise as a TV show for the Syfy network. Maybe the 2019 film should have had a different title, but now that it’s out, perhaps both versions of Chucky can exist. The 2019 film is an entertaining and updated take on a familiar story, one that’s funny at times and relevant for our Alexa, smart phone-obsessed culture.
Overall Score: B Plus