Directed By: Lars Klevberg
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Mark Hamill
Seeing the toll an unwanted move has taken on her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) gets him a special surprise for his impending birthday: Buddi, the Kaslan Corporation's advanced learning doll. Armed with an AI that can interact with all of Kaslan's devices, from self-driving cars to your home's thermometers, Buddi dolls imprint on their owner and become their best, most loyal pal, the seemingly perfect companion for a young boy whose closest friend is his cell phone.
Unfortunately for Andy, a situation involving a disgruntled employee at one of Kaslan's production facilities has left this specific Buddi – who names himself Chucky, of course – without its inhibitors on, something that allows for the AI to learn and behave in ways it shouldn't. Watching his best bud Andy get hurt by the family cat or get yelled at by Karen's boyfriend Shane (David Lewis) or seeing how much of a blast Andy and friends the boy does eventually make have watching gory horror movies, for instance, all shape Chucky's view of the world and his relationship with Andy, who he wants to make happy whatever the cost, and it doesn't take long before he's solving Andy's problems with murder.
Stripping away the serial killer possession aspect that has defined Chucky for over thirty years gives this big reboot of the Child's Play franchise a chance to branch out on its own. With a screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, this new spin on Chucky is freed from the baggage of the past, which may alienate loyalists – something I'll touch on in a little bit – though ends up surprisingly refreshing as a result. The case could be made that the world didn't need a new Chucky, but Child's Play overcomes that, giving us a film that's better than it has any right to be.
There's a self-awareness that courses through the film's veins about what it is, a movie about a killer doll, and how part of the fun of these types of movies is often laughing about how grown adults manage to get killed by a two-foot-tall hunk of plastic. The original Child's Play played its concept mostly straight, which worked at the time because it felt like a relatively new spin in the slasher genre, and while the sequels that followed ranged in quality, a simple fact remained: Once the toy is out of the box, it's hard to make it scary again. The original films became less about the horror of a kid's doll hiding in plain sight between murders and more about Chucky's personality, and understandably so, as original actor Brad Dourif is a massive reason why Chucky became – and has remained – such an icon.
This time around, though, Child's Play makes a point that it's not the doll itself worth being afraid of. His odd look is initially off-putting, which ultimately helps the creepiness factor as the film rolls along, sure, but at the same time, Chucky is still a doll. Unlike, say, Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, he should be easy to defeat. And, fortunately, this reboot runs with that notion; at one point, Andy and his friends effortlessly overcome the off-the-rails doll, earning the quick win it should be.
Instead, it's the AI that's to be feared and the interconnectedness between everything it can access that allows for Chucky to overcome simply being a doll in order to kill everyone who he sees as coming between him and Andy in ways that don’t require his plastic body. This Chucky can tap into whatever he wants with the flick of a finger, whether it's using an automated tiller to kill someone or tapping into Andy's hearing aid to taunt him, and even plays back recordings he's logged to justify his actions, such as throwing the very complaints Andy had about wanting someone gone that spurred Chucky into action back in the young boy’s face. At one point, after killing the family cat, Chucky even wakes Andy up to the sounds of the cat being killed in a supremely effective, darkly humorous scene that works as a summation of Chucky's own journey through the film: As much as it feels like he's taunting Andy, it also feels very innocent, as if he's playing the sound back because he thinks it'll make Andy happy.
And that concept of Chucky being – up to a point, at least – sympathetic is a new element for these films that really works to sell this one. Chucky doesn't come out of the box inherently evil. He wants to be the best friend he can be to Andy, a noble, programmed goal, but simply can't understand where the line is, and there's a level of sympathy in him that the film creates which serves as a unique wrinkle in the concept that differentiates it from its predecessors, such as in the aforementioned scene where Andy and his friends best him, to his confusion and fear. When Andy gets mad at him after one of Chucky's first big, horrific acts, he apologizes, sad and genuine, but there's no turning back; the damage is done, Andy's trust in him is gone, and it snowballs from there, with Chucky trying to prove himself the only way he knows how now.
Bateman, Plaza, and Brian Tyree Henry, who plays a detective whose mom lives down the hall from the Barclays, are all pretty good here, but it's Mark Hamill who really shines, to no surprise. Dourif's work has been legendary over the last three decades, and it's to the credit of everyone involved that Hamill isn't simply relegated to doing a pale imitation of Dourif. This version of Chucky feels like a unique creation all his own, and Hamill does fantastic work in capturing the doll's sinister innocence. The film has a lot of fun with Chucky's descent, something that Hamill delivers so well; by the end of the film, he feels truly unhinged, in the spirit of the Chucky horror fans have come to know and love, and if there's one thing worth getting excited about this film, it's the potential of where it could go next with Hamill's involvement.
As I mentioned, it may turn away fans of the original franchise simply because it wants to be its own thing. Without Dourif and creator/steward Don Mancini, who at least will continue their original franchise with an upcoming television series, this is very much a fresh start. Admittedly, when it was announced, I rolled my eyes. While I'm a fan of the first four films, particularly Child's Play 2 – my personal favorite – the last three have really demonstrated that maybe new blood is just what this franchise needed lest it be time to just put it all to bed. At the same time, though, it’s Chucky, whose personality is so iconic that it begs the question of why anyone would try to bother to reimagine both him and this concept when it’s been done enough (hence the eye rolling). But now that this reboot is here, far better than I expected, I'm curious what happens next, as we now live in a world where two versions of the same franchise will exist concurrently.
It's not high art, but Child's Play is pretty entertaining nonetheless, a respectful reboot that isn't an absolute abomination because it's clear that those involved were passionate about taking the concept in a new direction without forgetting where it came from. It's paced well, there are some great lighting decisions, it has a wickedly fun sense of dark humor, and Bear McCreary's theme for the movie is pretty cool, complimented by an end credits song sung by Hamill that really brings the idea home that the film isn't pretending to be something it isn't; we're allowed to laugh with it, not at it.
It often feels like it's pulling its punches a bit in terms of violence and scope, as though it doesn't want to go too wild yet lest it alienate audiences too much right out of the gate who are coming in with expectations about what a Chucky movie should be, but it leaves the door wide open for a crazy future ahead following a finale that demonstrates some of the crazy potential this new Chucky has for inciting all sorts of mayhem. For a reboot no one was asking for, this could've been an absolute disaster on par – or worse – with past failed attempts at reviving horror icons, like 2010's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which makes it all the more miraculous that I didn't just come out of it smiling, I came out of it ready for more.
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