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CHILD'S PLAY

Chucky's Back and Bad as Ever

Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey Plaza
Orion Pictures
 90 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByLars Klevberg
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry    
B-
Child's Play

While I’m not a fan of remakes in general, I was especially gloomy at the thought of a reboot of the 30-year-old Child’s Play franchise. The original 1988 movie about the spirit of a serial killer that, through a voodoo curse possesses the body of a popular children’s toy was a decent horror film, thanks in large part to the vocal talents of Brad Dourif as Chucky. But while Dourif made a career out of voicing the devil doll in a series of sequels over the years, the franchise quickly ran out of ideas and increasingly went for cheap, unfunny gags in addition to the gore. So, I wasn’t very optimistic at the thought of a complete reboot in 2019. But what I hadn’t counted on was that, this time around, rather than just do a rote remake with better special effects and Mark Hamill subbing for Dourif as the voice of Chucky, the filmmakers took current technology, and our fear of it, into account, and the result is a mostly clever satire.

 

The new Chucky isn’t a stuffed toy that’s been possessed; instead, it’s a fully functional robot who is sort of a next-generation Alexa. As explained by Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson), CEO of Chucky’s manufacturer, Kaslan Industries, the Buddi doll, of which Chucky is an example, is an artificial intelligence robot designed to pair with a human child and become a friend and companion. Imagine a fully mobile Alexa for the younger set, and you get the idea. The Buddi doll is just one of the many helpful AI devices like drones and driverless cars manufactured by Kaslan.

 

All is well and good with the Buddis until a disgruntled employee in the Vietnamese factory where the Buddis are made turns off all the safety protocols built into one particular Buddi. That Buddi eventually winds up in the hands of 12-year-old Andy (Gabriel Bateman), son of single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza). At first, Andy thinks he’s too old for the doll he names Chucky, but the doll’s advanced capabilities (and the beguiling voice of Hamill) eventually win over the lonely boy.

 

Unfortunately, Andy proves a bad influence on Chucky, as he and his friends treat Chucky to various horror films in which people get dismembered much to the laughing glee of Andy and pals. Then, when Andy expresses his anger, first at the family’s pet cat and then at Mom’s scumbag married boyfriend, Chucky takes matters into his own hands. Andy learns what Chucky has done when Detective Norris (Brian Tyree Henry), who happens to be Andy’s neighbor, begins to investigate the boyfriend’s death. A horrified Andy tries to dispose of Chucky, but, as often happens in horror movies, that’s easier said than done. Chucky winds up on the loose and can network with other Kaslan products and reprogram them into deadly killing machines as well. The movie’s finale occurs at the Zedmart store where Karen works, as a horde of eager kids awaits the arrival of the new, improved Buddi 2 dolls.

 

The similarities between Kaslan and Amazon, as well as between Henry Kaslan and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, are striking and very obvious to anyone watching Child’s Play. Kaslan makes several video appearances during the movie, and the script by newcomer Tyler Burton Smith takes every opportunity it can to poke fun at the ubiquitous presence of Amazon (and the Walmart clone Zedmart) in our culture.

 

But it’s not just the size and seemingly friendly image of Amazon that Child’s Play puts under the microscope. Instead, Smith and director Lars Klevberg go back a half-century to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey to play on our fears of computers. Indeed, the Hal9000 in Kubrick’s film could easily be the “father” of Hamill’s Chucky. Not surprisingly, 2001 spawned a series of “evil supercomputer” movies in the years that followed, but our technology has evolved rapidly in the last 50 years so that what seemed comfortably fantastic in Kubrick’s day is very plausible today.

 

Unlike many slasher films today that want to begin the blood flow before the opening credits, Child’s Play takes its time in putting all the elements in place that allow Chucky to become a deranged killer. The 1988 original didn’t cause people to look askance at their Cabbage Patch Dolls for fear that they might be possessed by the spirit of a deranged killer, but the thought that our friendly Alexa might decide to do things her own way isn’t that far from people’s consciousnesses. Child’s Play has put those insecurities in the tangible form of the Chucky doll, that, unlike the creation 30 years earlier, maintains its placid exterior and voice for most of the movie. Indeed, the big takeaway from this version of the film is that Chucky is an innocent corrupted by faulty programming, both internal and external, and that a naïve desire to please and bond with a lonely boy can turn worse under the wrong set of circumstances.

 

The new Child’s Play has more going for it than just a bright idea, however. This is Aubrey Plaza’s first mother role, and she isn’t just a moderate-sized name cashing a paycheck. Instead, she takes the stereotyped horror film role of the clueless parent and injects it with her own sly brand of humor. Best of all, however, is Mark Hamill. He’s got his fair share of experience with this sort of role, both as the Trickster on both versions of The Flash television series and as the Joker in various animated Batman ventures. The key to his performance is staying away from the all-out nutso vocalizations of Dourif and instead making Chucky innocent and appealing for the most part. This even extends to singing his little ditty to Andy to calm the boy down at a time that Andy strongly suspects Chucky’s malevolent tendencies.

 

Child’s Play is still a slasher film, and it’s the movie’s eventual adherence to the R-rated conventions of the genre that turn the ending into an overlong standard-issue horror showdown. For the most part, the body count in Child’s Play is quite low (although the killings are sufficiently gory to satisfy genre fans), but when Chucky and a host of potential victims get locked inside a Zedmart, things get out of hand rather quickly. The movie is barely 90 minutes long, and that finale actually prevents director Klevberg from thoroughly examining the consequences of Chucky’s assuming control of a variety of Kaslan devices. I can only hope that the inevitable sequel will go into this aspect of the storyline in greater detail.

 

Overall, the first hour or so of Child’s Play contained some of the best horror footage I’ve seen all year. Then, the final set piece, which admittedly has a few enjoyable moments, served as a reminder of what can go wrong in routine horror movies. The movie still delivers the goods, and the role of Chucky will undoubtedly give Mark Hamill admittance to even more genre conventions, but Child’s Play serves as a reminder that making an outstanding horror film is not child’s play. 

In this clip, Chucky torments Gabriel Bateman.

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Child's Play (2019) on IMDb

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