The Child’s Play franchise has provided me many, many hours of entertainment over the years. I’m a fan of Don Mancini’s series and I’ve seen them all, though my memory is a bit hazy on the first three. I still remember the original premise of a children’s doll possessed by a serial killer (Brad Dourif) using a voodoo ritual to transfer his soul and continue killing people in creative new ways. The franchise did eventually give way more to comedy than pure horror as the sequels mounted up, the last being 2017’s Cult of Chucky, but as concepts to franchise-spawning slasher films go, it was hard to beat.
That’s why I was disappointed hearing this year’s reboot of Child’s Play changed the premise to a malfunctioning artificial intelligence (AI) robot. A malfunctioning robot? No voodoo soul transference? No Brad Dourif? Give me a break. That’s lame. I still gave it a chance, though, and was surprised to come away convinced these changes were probably for the best. Despite being a completely different movie to the original, I really enjoyed the remake.
Directed by Lars Klevberg (Polaroid, The Wall), Child’s Play starts with a short promotional video from Kaslan Industries – the Apple-like maker of many household technological products – promoting their revolutionary new Buddi doll. The Buddi doll is an AI robot that imprints onto its owner to be a friend for life and is able to communicate with other Kaslan products like a TV, sound system, internet, etc. to make your life better and easier. It’s the future!
Cut to the sweatshop factory in Vietnam where the dolls are assembled and a disgruntled employee decides to disable all the safety features of the last Buddi doll he’ll ever work on just before committing suicide. I’ll admit, this introduction to how the doll became “defective” is a bit stupid and I was very skeptical on whether or not the rest of the movie would be this dumb. Thankfully, the story gets much better so let’s pretend we don’t know that some random factory assembly worker couldn’t realistically go into the programming of a doll and make it unsafe.
In Chicago, Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) has recently moved house with her hearing-impaired son Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman). She’s a single mom working a dead-end job, dating the wrong kind of guy and doing her best to provide for her son. Realizing that Andy is lonely without friends in their new location she manages to get hold of the out-of-date first-generation Buddi doll (the new version is about to be released) and gives it to her son as an early birthday present.
At first Andy isn’t too impressed with the slightly malfunctioning doll who calls himself Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) instead of the name Andy gives him. But things change quickly when Andy discovers his Buddi doesn’t have the personality limitations other Buddi dolls, becoming fast-friends with his
Andy soon becomes good friends with Chucky and is able to make real life friends who love the fact that Chucky can swear, be made to scare people and all round join in with their mischief. However, their fun turns to horror when Chucky learns too much from his mischievous human influencers. Without human empathy to help him decide what’s right or wrong, Chucky does whatever it takes to protect Andy and to stop anyone from taking his “best friend” away from him.
The acting is surprisingly good for a slasher horror film. When there isn’t any killing happening you could mistake this for a drama or thriller about a struggling mom doing her best with what she’s got. Aubrey Plaza is great as Karen, the working single mother who hates her dead-end job but does what needs to be done in order to make ends meet. She wants her son to be happy in their new home but also wants a break from being overworked and having to raise a teenage son on her own. It doesn’t help that Andy hates new boyfriend Shane (David Lewis). You really feel sorry for her when you can see Shane doesn’t really return the love she gives but he’s the best she can do for now.
Gabriel Batemen is a very talented young actor and great as Andy. The story demands much from his character and Gabriel is able to deliver the goods on all fronts. His mother-and-son scenes with Aubrey Plaza feel natural and the pair work well together. You feel his loneliness and unhappiness at being in a new place without friends. Then he lights up the mood when he makes new friends and gets into all the mischief you’d expect from kids his age. His hatred towards his Shane is palpable and his fear is tangible when realizing his robotic little friend is not only just killing people, but killing people to please him.
The real star of Child’s Play, however, is the character we all came to see – Chucky. Mark Hamill is fantastic as the voice for the murderous little doll. He’s creepy yet with a mad sense of fun. There’s a strange sense of empathy for the knife-wielding robot because it’s not his fault he’s a killer. In the original 1988 Child’s Play Chucky was already a killer who possesses a doll – so you didn’t feel bad when he was “killed” at the end. But Chucky 2019 is a robot who “thinks” he’s doing the right thing based on his purpose, design and human influences. There’s an innocence in his character as he just wants to spend time with Andy who he’s been imprinted on. Chucky sees the unhappiness of Andy’s life and his murderous actions are all aimed at making Andy happy.
It’s sad to watch the reactions of Chucky when he doesn’t understand that what he does is wrong. His intentions are actually “good” yet his actions completely horrific. It’s an interesting role and Hamill easily portrays so much of those good intentions, confusion and murderous fun with his voice alone. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a big surprise; he did play what many feel is the definitive Joker, after all.
Director Lars Klevberg has made an interesting and enjoyable remake that isn’t your typical slasher horror movie. It explores a lot of interesting themes, in addition to killing people in nasty horrific ways. What are the dangers associated with having everything connected by technology? Can a robot replace real human connection? Who is responsible for a robot’s actions when it does the wrong things? All these ideas are there while we watch Chucky take out people in one brutal scene after the next.
Yet, despite the violent actions of Chucky, you sort of feel sorry for the murderous little guy because it’s not his fault he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s simply doing what he was programmed to do. And that’s what I really loved about this version of Child’s Play – it made me feel sorry for the killer.
While I enjoyed the film overall, there are a few things that let this movie experience down. The setup is very weak, the kill count isn’t high enough and the ending was anticlimactic. The best death scenes come too early so when the build up reaches the end when Chucky is causing the most mayhem, it just fell flat. I felt like more characters needed to be on the chopping block for this to really be a proper slasher film. I guess that’s what sequels are for, which we’re likely to get if this one finds an audience.
Despite its shortcomings, Child’s Play is a solid reboot that is still an enjoyable experience. Fans of the original may be disappointed with the removal of voodoo magic in exchange for a malfunctioning killer AI and robot Buddi doll (I wasn’t impressed with the first trailer), however this change does allow for some deft commentary on our connected future and overreliance on computer AI. Mark Hamill is great as the new Chucky and I look forward to hearing more from him in the inevitable sequels, which I hope include higher body counts and better spaced-out kills. Even if you’re a diehard fan/purist of the original Child’s Play films, I recommend giving this one a chance.