There’s a great gag in the 1992 Simpsons Halloween episode Treehouse of Horror III. It happens during the segment “Clown Without Pity”, which involves an evil Krusty the Clown doll attempting to murder Simpson patriarch Homer. The problem is resolved when a repairman arrives at the Simpson residence, takes one look at the back of the doll, and proclaims: “Yep, here’s your problem. Someone set this thing to evil.”
Sure enough, on the dolls back is switch with two modes: GOOD and EVIL. It’s a quick, silly throwaway joke that works perfectly in the comical animated world of The Simpsons. And the makers of the 2019 Child’s Play remake apparently liked it so much they decided to steal it to create their Chucky. Because the new Chucky isn’t a doll possessed by a serial killer. It’s just a doll that someone set to evil. How lazy can you get?
It’s probably unfair to constantly compare a remake to its original, and I can’t fault the new Child’s Play for trying new things. In fact, it’s commendable that screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith and director Lars Klevberg attempted to teach an old doll new tricks. Unfortunately, the new story they come up with is so bland and lifeless that it borders on incompetent. To make things all the more frustrating, there are the germs of good ideas buried in here, but never fully realized. And Klevberg’s direction is often quite stylish, relying on bright reds, greens and blues that give the film a cold, sleek vibe. But none of that really matters when the final product turns out to be so defective.
In this Child’s Play, Chucky is a “Buddi” doll, the product of the Kaslan Corporation – a mega-company that’s sort of like Apple and Amazon combined. They manufacture practically everything, including dolls possessing an alarmingly sophisticated level of A.I. The dolls are created by overworked, underpaid employees in a factory in Vietnam, and as the film opens, one worker has had enough of the abuse he’s suffered doing his job. His solution: to turn off all the safety features on a Buddi doll, and then promptly commit suicide.
The altered doll eventually finds its way to America, where its returned to a Zed-Mart store for being defective. Employee Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) decides to bring the doll home to her lonely son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), even though he’s a bit old for dolls. But the Buddi doll is no mere toy – like the Amazon Echo, it has the power to connect to smart devices and control them.
Andy takes a liking to the doll almost immediately. And the doll, which learns at an incredibly quick rate, imprints on Andy. The doll adopt the name Chucky (how this happens is played as a dumb joke that doesn’t land at all), and he and Andy become best friends. Mark Hamill provides the voice of the new Chucky, and while Hamill is an accomplished voice actor, his Chucky can’t hold a candle to the original, Brad Dourif. To be fair, this new Chucky is much different. Dourif was playing a grown man trapped inside the body of a toy. Hamill’s Chucky is simply a sophisticated robot learning as he goes along. The actor gives the character a lilting, childlike voice that never quite works.
Chucky may seem sweet and innocent at first, but it’s not long before he’s turned into a killing machine, brutally bumping off anyone who he perceives as a threat to his friendship with Andy. It’s here where the filmmakers could’ve done something interesting, because this Chucky isn’t immediately evil. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he’s a misunderstood creation that ends up resorting to violence. A better script would’ve done more with this concept, but Child’s Play is in too much of a hurry to satisfy gore-hounds. This results in several admittedly nasty kills – one poor sap has his entire face removed. But Chucky’s bloodlust never really makes sense. Sure, it’s established that his programming has been altered, but why would that result in cold-blooded killing? The film attempts to provide a lame answer by having Chucky get inspired by watching scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It’s a pathetic stab at trying to comment on the effective of violence on viewers, but how seriously can we take that message when the film then has Chucky brutally slaughtering people for our viewing pleasure?
In what can only be seen as an attempt to cash-in on Strange Things vibes, the new Child’s Play also throws in a group of quirky kids for Andy to pal around with, and eventually take on Chucky. This is one of the film’s biggest missteps, as not a single one of these characters has anything memorable to add to the proceedings. The majority of them don’t even get names, and the two that do are saddled with the unfortunate monikers Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio). It’s as if the film realized these characters were paper-thin, and thought that giving them quirky names would make up for any lack of personality.
Bateman’s Andy is likable enough, primarily because he’s allowed to act and talk like a real 13-year-old. But we never really get a feel for the character. Ditto Andy’s mom Karen. Plaza does her absolute best, and she’s talented enough to make Karen seem like a fleshed-out character, even though the script has no real interest in her. Brian Tyree Henry‘s Detective Mike Norris is treated even worse – I dare you to find something compelling about this character beyond Henry’s inherent charisma and acting prowess. It should be illegal to give such a talented performer as Henry such a nothing role.
I was initially pleased to learn that the new film would be using a puppet for Chucky for most scenes – an entirely CGI doll for the full movie would’ve been a travesty. But the final result isn’t much to write home about either. The original Chucky puppet had an actual presence – it really felt like a living thing. This new doll is clunky as hell, with stiff movements and even stiffer facial expressions.
Child’s Play wants to prey on the fears of technology so inherent to our modern age. Like an overlong episode of Black Mirror, it’s constantly showing us ways that smart tech can go horribly wrong. But the results are so outlandish, and so unlikely, that there’s never real fear to be had. If this new Child’s Play couldn’t nail the fear factor, it could’ve at least tried to have some fun. But even on that front it fails. The only truly fun thing here is a phenomenal toy instrument score courtesy of Bear McCreary. If it’s killer doll thrills you seek, stick with the original Child’s Play, and put this lackluster remake back on the shelf.
/Film Rating: 4.5 out of 10
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