Movie Review: Child’s Play (2019).
This reboot wants to make Chucky your best friend again. I’d say it’s more of a cautious play date.
Here we go again. Another horror remake, this time of the surprisingly long-lived Child’s Play franchise. I have to admit that I thought the series had gone dormant decades ago after the last theatrical release, Seed of Chucky. Turns out you can’t keep an evil murder doll down. The franchise churned out two more straight to DVD entries that were really well received, the last coming out in 2017. It seems a little odd to be getting a hard reboot just two years after the last entry, especially since they seem to be delivering the goods for fans.
The trailer for this re-imagining of the series had me intrigued. The kills looked gleefully gory and inventive, and the update of Chucky as a smart device gone awry seemed much more relevant than a voodoo serial killer slumming it inside the body of a doll. Having seen it, I can say that Child’s Play 2019 managed to tick those box. Mostly. Despite a few big moments, everything felt safe. I’m not sure if that’s quite enough to rebrand and relaunch the franchise.
Child’s Play (2019).
Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) are new transplants to the city, arriving with a ton of baggage. Karen weathers being a single mom by working thankless double shifts at the local big box store, and by continually dating Mr. Wrong. Andy takes his unstable home life as a judgement of his worth, and a hearing disability makes him reluctant to engage with other children.
To help Andy socialize, Karen salvages a defective Buddi doll from work, the hot new smart toy who acts like a surrogate best friend. Unfortunately, Andy’s new bestie, Chucky (Mark Hamill) has issues with boundaries and wants to be Andy’s only friend.
Do You Want to Play?
There’s quite a few big ideas floating around on the surface of this reboot. We start with a commercial for the Kaslan system of smart devices, with Tim Matheson (Animal House) really leaning into the creepy paternalism of silicon valley utopian double speak. From there we hard cut to the Vietnamese sweatshop where virtual slaves are assembling the Buddi dolls. Next we head to Zed Mart, the Walmart-esque retailer for the Buddi dolls, where Aubrey Plaza oozes wage-slave desperation. There’s urban blight, though the film conspicuously ignores race for some reason. AI, the surveillance state, consumerism and more all line up to tip their hat to the audience, before being quickly shuffled off the stage.
Part of what makes the film feel so safe is that nothing of importance makes more than a quick cameo. It’s not like the screenwriters are oblivious to it, either. The Tim Matheson segments feel ripped right out of Robocop, and we even get a toy police car spout Robocop’s iconic line “dead or alive, you’re coming with me!” I can almost feel director Lars Klevberg itching to really tear into society the way Verhoeven did with his film…but the script always yanks the leash. We don’t even get an in-depth look at living with disabilities, though Andy is hearing impaired and Chucky is autistic…
Smart Device Disabled.
So. To start, Chucky is literally learning disabled, as his defective chip prevents him from downloading the knowledge and socialization program from Kaslan. He cannot process metaphorical language, instead taking everything Andy says literally. He’s prone to repetitious behavior and vocalizations, creating routines of call and response that causes him violent distress if they are interrupted or not reciprocated. His attempts to model empathy result in much of the early mayhem he causes. If he’s removed from a situation for inappropriate responses, he gets moody and agitated. Having taught special needs students for years, it’s pretty clear that 2019’s Chucky is somewhere on the spectrum.
I’m not sure if the creators wanted to explicitly make Chucky autistic, or if they thought it was a good metaphor for how an AI would try to process human interactions. On one hand, I think it’s an intriguing concept that machine learning could resemble the alternative learning strategies of students with disabilities. On the other hand, presenting a murderous doll who devolves into pure malevolence and spite is not a flattering comparison for folks who already struggle under a ton of misunderstanding and stereotypes.
I think the thing that tipped the scale for me was that Chucky’s visual presentation, before he goes full evil, really feels like a caricature of a mentally disabled person. I saw a lot of reviews saying Chucky comes off as sympathetic. I think that impression comes from the persistent presentation of the disabled as objects of pity. Early in the film, Chucky feels like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, a dangerous simpleton. It’s one thing to humanize the antagonist. It’s another to accomplish it by dehumanizing real people.
Are We Having Fun?
With that out of the way, how was Child’s Play as a horror comedy? First, I think this 2019 version wants to skew more towards 1980’s style horror. It has a few jokes, and some of the kills are of the “darkly poetic” karmic kills of the slasher flick genre. There are also tons of nods to iconic horror films from that era like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, The Leprechaun, and even Killer Clowns from Outer Space. The humor, which mostly misses, is not of the gleefully self-aware schlock of the later Child’s Play movies.
As a horror flick then, Child’s Play feels like an intriguing appetizer rather than a main course. There are really only three big kills before the mayhem of the finale, and of those only the first really knocks it out of the park, as we watch Karen’s abusive boyfriend get taken down. The second feels a bit pedantic – the creepy guy who uses smart devices to spy on Karen has them all turned on him in largely predictable ways. The last solo kill felt gratuitous, as it offed a sympathetic character. The final melee actually feels bloodless, as I counted only two fatalities despite Chucky having a department store full of victims. Throughout, the highlight was effective use of lighting and color to make the mundane feel surreal. From the purple and greens lights, to the jump scares, to the design of Buddi Bear, it reminded me more of 5 Nights at Freddy’s than an old school horror.
Wait for Buddi 2.0
Child’s Play 2019 is a bit of a lukewarm experience. There’s a ton of avenues to explore, but none of them received a satisfying amount of attention in this first outing. Andy and his posse of young survivors were completely bland, and the acting was pretty disappointing in places. I liked Hamill’s vocalization of the character, but the script left a lot of red meat on the bones for him to chomp his way through in another outing. The most interesting character was really Detective Mike, played by Brian Tyree Henry (Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk,) who actually felt like a fully rounded character worth getting invested in. I usually love Aubrey Plaza, but there wasn’t enough here for her to really make solid contact.
I’d be interested in seeing where this franchise goes next. If it develops the characters and angles it teased in this film, it could really do something interesting. As it stands, this reboot was competent, with a few flashes of greatness and a few major stumbles. I was mostly entertained throughout, but never felt like I quite got all of what the trailer had promised.