Review: Slick, Perhaps More Than It Deserves To Be; CHILD'S PLAY Is A Fun Watch
The Child’s Play franchise is quite the interesting series. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a franchise that has wavered wildly in terms of tone from one installment to another. The initial movie from 1988 is, without a doubt, a horror classic with great performances by Chris Sarandon, Catherine Hicks and, of course, the creation of a new horror icon, Chucky, all brought to life by the raw and visceral vocal talents of Brad Dourif. The two immediate sequels, Child’s Play 2 (1990) and Child’s Play 3 (1991), while still respectable and commendable efforts on continuing the lore of Chucky and his pursuit of Andy Barclay, essentially end up becoming a theme of diminishing returns.
In the next two installments, the wheels flew off the car, for better or worse depending on who you ask. Bride of Chucky (1998) is an enjoyable horror comedy romp that has some ingenious puppetry work and the introduction of the homicidal Tiffany, the ex of Chucky’s human form Charles Lee Ray, played by the delicious Jennifer Tilly. I am a big fan of this entry and was looking forward to where the series would go from there. Seed of Chucky (2004) was, for all intents and purposes, a gleefully over-the-top camp fest that decided to introduce the spawn of Chucky and Tiffany, the androgynous Glen. While it wasn’t a complete misfire, I felt like the series strayed too far from what it needed to be. Bride of Chucky was a good mix of both horror and comedy, while Seed just leaned into black comedy too hard for my tastes. The last two entries were straight to VOD/Blu-ray releases, Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017). I enjoyed these two entries in the franchise, going back to the horror roots while introducing a few more mechanics and story lore to keep the series fresh and going forward. It wasn’t something I would re-watch ever again, but it was a step in the right direction after Seed.
Now, in 2019, a new Child’s Play movie has arrived, but not the one you might expect. The studio that still holds the rights to the original movie, Orion Pictures, decided to push forward with a reboot of the series. This was initially met with complete disdain, as the creator and father figure of the entire Child’s Play franchise, writer-director Don Mancini, was not involved in any way at all. Don also voiced his displeasure with the reboot plans, as he is currently planning on continuing his Chucky storyline with a TV series. This remake was deep in a grave for horror fans before it arrived. After a lukewarm trailer and negative reactions to the new Chucky doll, some glimmer of hope was restored (in my mind at least) when Mark Hamill was announced as the new voice of Chucky. Luke Skywalker, Joker from Batman The Animated Series, Skips from Regular Show….I love Hamill. Now, after the movie was finally released and as I was catching it opening night, the question was simply, “Is it any good?”
In the opening prologue, we learn of a new electronic creation, the Buddi doll. The company that created Buddi, Kaslan, is an Amazon-like mega corporation that has its fingers in everything electronic and the Buddi doll acts as an “Alexa”-like manipulator that can control all of your Kaslan products. After we start in Vietnam, where a disgruntled employee ends up removing all of the preventative inhibitors from a newly created Buddi doll, we cut to outcast Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman), struggling to fit in after moving to a new town with his mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza). Karen ends up taking a supposedly “defective” returned Buddi doll from her Walmart-like place of work and gifting it to her son for his birthday. Soon Andy and Chucky (Andy suggested Han Solo, but the doll heard Chucky…hmm) become best friends and are seemingly doing wonders for each other’s personality. However, as we can all predict, the removal of the safeguards in Chucky’s system will come back to haunt this poor kid in the end. All Chucky wants to do is make his best friend Andy happy, and he will do anything to make sure that happens. He also has no intention of ever letting Andy go anywhere…ever.
Off the bat, I just want to let it be known that I did enjoy this movie. Child’s Play 2019 is a well-made slick horror film that is better than it has any right to be considering the tumultuous history it went through before release. First, let’s get to what worked. I believe Mark Hamill gives a nicely restrained but completely creeptastic vocal performance as the new Chucky. Mark gives the voice a mechanical simplicity, very child-like, and for the first time in this franchise, you feel an emotional connection to Chucky and his overall mission. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a stable individual and is killing people all over the place, but you see the reason for his madness and it adds a small level of sympathy for the character. While we are on the subject, the kills are quite brutal and vicious, displaying some copious gore that doesn’t come along often in a major studio release. We get limbs flying, faces peeled, bones piercing skin, the works. Scumbags get their comeuppance in a few of them, but we also get one kill of someone that I did NOT want to see die, and I felt a little sadness when it did happen. Brian Tyree Henry delivers a warm performance as the detective that lives next door to the Barclay’s, trying to solve the mysterious murders that are happening all around him. While he’s no Chris Sarandon, he does a great job and fills the authority role admirably.
Gabriel Bateman also does a commendable job as Andy, who has been aged a few years older from the original’s incarnation. I do believe Alex Vincent from the original is a better Andy, primarily due to his age and innocence being threatened by a psychopath and the performance he pulls off, but Bateman’s performance works. A special shout-out should be given to the practical effects team who fashioned the animatronic Chucky creation we see in this version. Eschewing the easy route of going full CG, it was very nice to see a real- life animatronic puppet moving throughout the movie (outside of a few shots that required a CG touch) and it only enhances the dedication to honor the original’s spirit.
As with most remakes or reboots, there are things that just don’t work this time around. Aubrey Plaza plays mother Karen Barclay like she is completely disinterested in the movie she’s currently in, and it bleeds hard into the movie. She has no emotional heft, I never really felt like she was giving a satisfactory performance and, honestly, she might be miscast in some ways. Catherine Hicks’ performance as Karen in the original was the embodiment of a mother who will do anything to save her child, throwing herself in harm’s way at a moment’s notice, and her acting conveys that with not a shred of dishonesty. She was a hard act to follow, and it appears Plaza didn’t even really try. While the movie is shot fine and nothing is too offensive, it’s not the most elegant flick to watch, as scenes appear to be underlit for no apparent reason and nothing is ever really done with the camera to give the movie its own persona. The kill sequences display some of the visual flair that perhaps the movie overall could have benefitted from greatly. I also wasn’t completely satisfied with the final sequence of the film, set at a department store about to have a midnight opening for the new Buddi 2 release. It felt way too small in scope for what they were trying to accomplish, and it came off more like a budgetary restraint of the project than an artistic choice. Choosing to have the final confrontation there demanded a more grandiose sequence, and if the money wasn’t there, they should have scaled it back and made it more personal and within the budget allotted.
In the end, I know there are people who simply won’t watch this new Child’s Play as some sort of undying allegiance to Don Mancini and how he wasn’t even asked to come on board or be involved in any facet. I do implore you, however, to at least check it out. You still might hate the directions they go in and the choices they make, but at least you can make that decision after you have viewed what they have to offer. It was probably just a cash grab on the studio’s part to pump out this reboot quickly and jump on the horror revival craze that Halloween 2018 seems to have started, but I don’t believe the entire project ends up being like that. While I still love the original Child’s Play much more than this reboot, mainly because it was fucking scary and Brad Dourif is the best, I do believe that Child’s Play 2019 is a fun romp of rollercoaster kills and an unsettling emotional performance from Mark Hamill. It may not be what we exactly want next from Chucky, but it’s a commendable film nevertheless.