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Child’s Play 2019: Remade, Remodeled, Redundant

Something something, stabby stabby, bring on the bloody carnage.

You know, back in my day, we didn’t think twice about movies revolving around a serial killer’s soul being trapped in the body of a doll because of a voodoo ritual. We liked it! It was fun! It was good, wholesome entertainment. You kids these days with your smart phones and your wi-fi and your automatic cars. I remember once when I was going up to Shelbyville. I had tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time…

There’s something horribly tedious about the 2019 reboot of Child’s Play, the 1988 horror film that gave the world Chucky, the aforementioned killer doll. You can throw the words unnecessary and uninspired in there, too, if you want. Because I know I do. Which is not to say it’s not mildly amusing at times, only to say that there’s little reason to watch it if you have access to the original. (Streaming is still a thing.)

Just look at that sweet, innocent face.

Like the original, this one features a murderous doll who comes into the possession of young Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) after his single mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) gives it to him as a birthday gift. It soon turns out, of course, that Chucky is more than he seems to be, and pretty soon it becomes obvious there’s something terribly wrong with him once the dead cats and severed heads start piling up. Something something, stabby stabby, bring on the bloody carnage.

The behind-the-scenes drama of the reboot is often more interesting than the final product. The original Child’s Play became a surprise hit, and Chucky himself became instantly iconic thanks to Brad Dourif’s phenomenal voice work. But MGM disowned the picture due to its violence, and the franchise jumped to Universal for the next six sequels. MGM still maintained the rights to remake the original, however, and when they pulled the trigger on that, literally everybody from the franchise was vocal in their opposition. That includes Dourif, fellow franchise face Jennifer Tilly, and especially creator/writer Don Mancini.

It’s easy to understand why. The new film is a total re-imagining of not only the premise of the original, but also of Chucky himself. No longer a receptacle for a killer’s consciousness, the new Chucky is a robot with a faulty AI. He’s a piece of hardware that can control all the smart devices you own; think of him as a creepy, look-who’s-stalking version of Google Home. The new Chucky literally does not have a soul inside of him and is instead a series of algorithms approximating an intelligence and personality. It’s a criticism that writes itself, really.

And that could work well enough on its own, actually. Could. I can’t stress that word enough. To be fair, Mark Hamill does a great job as the new voice of Chucky. Hamill might be famous for his role as Luke Skywalker, but it’s his work as a voice actor where he truly shines. He shifts his tonal phrasing so subtly as the film goes on that it’s impossible to pinpoint a moment where Chucky goes from “best buddy” to “bloody butcher.” The descent into psychosis is a quiet evolution that Hamill performs brilliantly. His Chucky is all logic, whereas Dourif’s is all id. He’s not quite on the horror hall-of-fame level of Dourif, but he comes close at the best of times.

Look at that! Horror reboots are on clearance!

Honestly, the entire human cast is pretty good, too. Gabriel Bateman’s Andy is a much more active force here than he ever was in the original. Aging Andy up from 6 years old to 13 was an excellent move, to be honest, and it allows the character a wider range of emotions and a deeper level of motivation. Bateman does a great job conveying Andy’s loneliness and angst, as well as his determination and panic. He has a very natural chemistry with Aubrey Plaza, who’s seems like a perfect choice to play a young mother with attitude. The shift in genre from her usual work doesn’t faze her in the least, and she’s fully committed to her role. She has a level of self-awareness here that makes her a sharp contrast from Catherine Hicks’ Karen in the original.

The film definitely could have used more of Plaza’s quietly ironic approach. Part of what made the original so enduring is how it approached such a ridiculous premise with such confident, stone-faced assuredness. It’s a nearly invisible level of self-parody that became more apparent as the series went on. There’s none of that here. This is, for all intents and purposes, a “dark and gritty” reboot of a film that already had plenty of that, but balanced it out with sarcastic charm. The new film is still set in a crapsack world full of highly flawed people, but with less fourth-wall detachment and more chopping up of body parts.

But that’s what ultimately does the film in. There’s a strong focus on Chucky’s brutal set pieces, but they tend to lack any kind of creativity, menace, or humor. They’re just moments that you’d see in any studio-backed, churn-’em-out horror film. Most of them are telegraphed from a mile away and several minutes in advance, robbing them of any impact.

Wanna play?

It’s where Chucky’s reinvention as a robot really harms the film. The original Chucky was a force of nature who killed people because he was an evil psychopath. The new one does it because he’s got bad code in his mainframe. The film does attempt, at least in the beginning, to connect this to some kind of commentary about modern culture’s love of violence and reliance on technology made by sweatshop labor, but it’s dropped by the 30-minute point and is almost never brought up again.

The whole film feels rather inert and sealed-off, a knock-off Chucky devoid of context if you will. Aside from one line of dialogue and some musical quoting in Bear McCreary’s mostly excellent score, there are no shout-outs to the original. It’s like someone decided to remake the original Child’s Play after watching the film’s trailer. Aside from some highly-appealing, genre-savvy performances by the leads, it doesn’t improve on the original at all. It’s an adequate remix, but that’s it. Much like Chucky himself, it works the way it’s supposed to some of the time, but clearly needs to go back to the factory.

You kids don’t know what you’re missing. I swear. When I was your age…

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

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