CHILD’S PLAY (2019) is a worthy reinvention of a classic franchise

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The new Child’s Play works way harder than it needs to. What felt at first like some kind of soulless cash-in on a beloved franchise manages instead to be an inspired update. Imperfect but entertaining, it rebuilds the brand from the inside out, drawing on our increased mistrust of Silicon Valley sociopaths in order to integrate Chucky with the 21st Century.

Credit director Lars Klevberg with striking a sardonic tone right off. This Chucky isn’t infused with the soul of an undead serial killer, but is instead the product of a disgruntled Vietnamese factory worker (and master coder, apparently) who removes all safety measures from the latest Buddi doll before leaping to his death. Yes, really. And to be honest, I’m still in hysterics about it.

A techno-heavy remake is an obvious move on some level. In my conversations with other writers and filmmakers, there’s the challenge of having to get creative in order to write technology out of the proceedings. No service, dead batteries, etc. But the new Child’s Play dives headlong into it. A scene where a character is brutally murdered while two ear witnesses stare obliviously at their smart devices, ears tucked beneath oversized headphones sums it up perfectly.

But Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith are careful not to make too much of a joke out of this. Child’s Play works surprisingly well in its earliest scenes, establishing a weirdly sweet relationship between boy and robot. This Chucky is actually interested in being Andy’s friend. At first he’s all about bonding, wanting nothing more than to protect Andy from the outside world (including mom’s shitty boyfriend).

This is where Mark Hamill shines as the voice of Chucky. He’s appropriately creepy when he needs to be, but Child’s Play gives him the opportunity to be kind of sweet, too. One of the best things Klevberg and Smith do is go hard with the E.T. vibes, so when I say there’s a genuine Amblin feel to this, it’s very clearly deliberate (right down to Andy’s red hoodie). There’s also a moment that make us genuinely sad for our pint-sized psycho, and that’s an interesting place for the series to go.

Chucky actually “learns” how to be a psychopath, and his road to murder is a rocky one. Once Andy is scratched by the family cat and Chucky acts out against it, he cannot understand why he’s being scolded for doing what he’s supposed to do. Later, a scene of Andy and his friends watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 gives Chucky all sorts of terrible ideas. Parental responsibility and harmful exposure to violence is one of the thematics in play. It gives the remake a strong identity of its own.

It spoils nothing to say that Chucky goes off the deep end before long, and this remake commits to the gore. The body count is low (as it was in the original), though underscored by a refreshing sense of fun. Budgetary limitations are apparent during a climax that promises blood-soaked carnage and then sort of underdelivers. If the movie had finished a bit stronger, I’d have no problem mentioning it in the same breath as the first two installments in the series. It doesn’t quite get there, but it gets close enough.

And there’s plenty to love along the way. This Chucky is essentially an Apple or Amazon product, so he turns our very modern methods of convenience against us. Self-driving cars become death traps while smart lights are always cutting out at inopportune times. It also means there’s limitless possibilities to exploit in our techno-dominated society, should future installments become reality.

I’m a sucker for the way this taps into our paranoia. This Chucky uses a lot of psychological domination on Andy in order to keep him subservient. In this future world we’ve made, we’re suddenly beholden to random Tweets written over a decade ago, living in fear of things we write or say in private. This Chucky goes full NSA, spying and recording everything people say.

Much has been said of Chucky’s redesign. Call it “bootleg Chucky” if you must, but the movie anticipates this pushback and puts the funky design to great use. I never once envied the creative team behind this Child’s Play–what an impossible task they were saddled with: reinventing one of the most iconic movie villains of all time. If you can move past your #NotMyChucky impulses, there’s a lot to savor about this freaky update. The animatronic work is fantastic, including a bit where the doll tries its damndest to smile WITHOUT looking creepy.

Hamill’s great in the role of Chucky, and I’d love to see what he does in future installments. I also think the human cast is quite strong, especially Aubrey Plaza. I enjoy her as a performer, and this is a weirdly tricky role for her. She’s a single mom trying to raise her son while juggling the demands of a retail job along with a rather thankless booty call relationship. Some of her character beats have clearly been sacrificed to the pacing gods, but Plaza is loving, yet distracted in a way I really appreciated. Sympathetic while also being kind of flawed and clueless. You know, like a real human being?

You can argue that nobody needed a Child’s Play remake. But it was always going to happen. The surprise is that it didn’t have to be this good. Or this fun. While I continue to savor every strange installment in the original (and ongoing) franchise, I also got a real charge out of seeing Chucky resurrected on the big screen once more. Some fans feel it’s sacrilege to do any of this without series creator and steward Don Mancini, but I think there’s something refreshing about getting another perspective on things.

See it with an open mind and you might just enjoy it.

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