Child’s Play Back in the Day.
1988 saw the release of the original “Child’s Play”, directed by Tom Holland (“Fright Night”), with Catherine Hicks (“Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home”) as a retail-working single mother named Karen Barclay who manages to procure a popular ‘Good Guy’ doll for her son Andy (Alex Vincent). Unbeknownst to the two of them, their ‘good guy’ is possessed by the soul of a now-dead killer named Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), who intends to continue his murder spree within the doll now known as “Chucky,” with the ultimate aim of once again inhabiting a flesh-and-blood body (namely Andy). Chris Sarandon plays nice guy cop Mike, who ultimately aids Karen and Andy in stopping Chucky before he can take possession of Andy.
That’s the original story, and it spawned a series of increasingly camp and silly sequels that are played as dark comedies rather than horror. I enjoyed the “Child’s Play” movies well enough. They work far better for satire than screams, with the later films becoming almost Saturday Night Live-parodies of the original. I still remember my wife and I giggling as we watched “Bride of Chucky” (1998) on cable. I also got a free condom at San Diego Comic Con 2004 as a promotional item for the then-new release of “Seed of Chucky” (the condoms were labeled “Get A Load Of Chucky”… I am not making that up). There were later made-for-video sequels which I didn’t see because I felt the idea had long ran down its batteries by then. “Child’s Play” felt tired…it was time to grow up.
So what brought me back? One name: Mark Hamill. Yes, Luke Skywalker himself. But it wasn’t his ability with the force that made me want to check out his take on Chucky, but rather the brilliant voice-acting work he’s done in the years since the original Star Wars trilogy. His “Joker” in Bruce Timm’s animated “Batman” TV series and its sequels is arguably one of the best interpretations of the character ever. Similarly impressive is his underrated work as the burned-out US soldier “Todd Wanio” from the epic Max Brooks’ audio-drama/book “World War Z” (2006; not to be confused with the truly inferior, related-in-name-only 2013 movie adaptation starring Brad Pitt). When I heard Hamill was involved? I decided there might be something to this 2019 “Child’s Play” reboot after all…
Child’s Play 2.0
The broad strokes of 2019’s “Child’s Play” (directed by Lars Klevberg) are more or less the same, but with important key differences. The new Chucky doll is no longer possessed by killer Charles Lee Ray, but is now a malfunctioning artificial intelligence system sabotaged by a disgruntled, suicidal sweatshop worker in Vietnam where the “Buddi” dolls are made. How a lowly line worker in a sweatshop could reprogram the doll’s software (let alone remove safety protocols for its AI) is never explained, but who cares? The dark magic voodoo nonsense that allowed Brad Douriff to possess 1988’s Chucky required similar suspension of disbelief.
Tim Matheson (“Animal House”) plays a Tim Cook-style executive for an Apple/Amazon style mega-corporation whose hands are in many fields, such as smartphones, smart-cars, smart-homes, etc. and its “Buddi” dolls come with an app that allows them to control any of their devices within your home (why any parent worth a damn would want their pre-teen kids to control vital functions of their house is beyond my comprehension, but okay…). For me, this was one of the new film’s most interesting new ideas. New Chucky isn’t some serial killer-possessed doll… it’s Alexa run amok. Given that we now live in a world under threat of cyber-warfare, that could be infinitely more dangerous than a body-leaping killer. The movie takes advantage of the idea, however illogically it is presented.
The new Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) is a genuinely terrible mother who now works at a far sleazier, on-its-last-legs retailer called (appropriately) Zedmart (think K-Mart in its final hours). Desperate for a gift for her son’s forthcoming birthday, she takes a returned Buddi doll (voiced by Hamill) from a disgruntled customer, and instead of returning it to the manufacturer, she blackmails a shipping/receiving worker into allowing her to take it home.
Plaza’s Karen is a mother of uncommonly bad judgment; from boyfriends to basic parental choices, she is in stark contrast to the original Karen, who was more mother lioness protecting her cub. The new Karen tries too hard at being the ‘friend’ as opposed to a solid parent.
Taking the doll home to her Andy (now played by Gabriel Bateman, who’s a good six or so years older than the original), only to realize he’s too old for the doll. Andy, trying to please his dispirited mother, accepts the gift. Upon powering it up, Andy realizes the glitchy, thoroughly creepy toy doesn’t quite work as advertised…
Eventually gaining control of the ‘smart-doll’, who names itself Chucky, the lonely latchkey kid begins to bond with the doll, who rapidly begins to learn all of Andy’s likes and dislikes, such as an irritating cat and his mother’s married douchebag boyfriend Shane (David Lewis), and eventually sets about ‘pleasing’ Andy by removing these obstacles from his life, one by one. Andy soon realizes Chucky goes too waaaay far when the deadly doll brings him ‘gifts’ of a human head and dead cat.
Along the way, Andy also befriends neighbor detective Mike Norris (now played as a warmer mama’s boy by Brian Tyree Henry, instead of ‘80s yuppie-cop Chris Sarandon), as well as a gaggle of local kids who befriend Andy, and later join him in his war against Chucky. Quite a few popular TV shows/movies these days feature “Scooby Gangs” of kids (the rebooted “It”, “Stranger Things,” “Good Omens” etc).
As Chucky begins to gain more and more remote interconnectivity of other devices, he becomes an even greater threat. Along the way, Chucky murders Mike’s mother in a self-driving car under his control, as well as the sleazy apartment building superintendent. The story climaxes at the midnight launch for the new line Buddi 2.0 dolls, which include wider style selections, and even a Buddi-Bear doll.
Chucky gains control of the dolls (and other toys) which become his remote-controlled cybernetic army in a plot to permanently eliminate all obstacles standing in the way between he and his ‘best friend’ Andy, including Andy’s mother and friends. Chucky is later smashed to bits by Andy, his mother (who was taken hostage by Chucky) and Andy’s friends.
A final scene sees the Tim Cook-like executive issuing a non-committal ‘apology’ via a bank of TV monitors for the deadly, gruesome melee at Zedmart, insisting that its products were not to blame. But, as a precaution, the launch of Buddi 2.0 will be delayed…leaving the originals on toy shelves to be unleashed in a potential sequel.
There are many times in this film where you simply have to suspend logic and disbelief for it to work at all. This was arguably the case in the originals as well (especially the campier sequels).
— That a disgruntled assembly worker in a Vietnamese sweatshop would have access to the Buddi’s operating software and control inhibitors is asinine. Such control chips would be hardwired and coded long before they’re installed by assembly workers. Then again, is such a premise any more ridiculous than Brad Dourif pouring his discorporating soul into a rubber doll? Probably not…
–When the sleazy building superintendent (Trent Redekop) is savagely murdered by Chucky, Detective Mike (who lives in the same building, along with the Barclays) doesn’t bother to inform ANY of his fellow building tenants that a gruesome murder has taken place in their building’s basement (!?). When I was an apartment dweller, there was a dead body found in one of our building’s dumpsters; warnings were posted all over the complex, including the mail and laundry areas. You’d think Detective Mike would’ve been more personally motivated to warn those tenants who shared his building.
— How a doll’s tiny hands could gain leverage and strength to tie a grown woman up with duct tape (let along wield heavy bludgeons) is also never explained. The doll’s hands and arms are simply too small to mechanically convey such power. Then again, this is yet another problem the previous Chucky franchise never addressed either (though that at least could be attributed to ‘voodoo’ or mysticism).
— Why would a toy manufacturer release a doll clearly designed for young children (probably ages 6-10) with the ability to operate a wide range of devices within their parent’s homes? Does anyone else see ‘bad idea’ written all over this? I can imagine a curious 7 year old accidentally jacking up the heat in their house to a sweltering temperature just to see how high it can get.
— The ‘Chucky POV’ cam features very 1990s-looking static as it glitches. I can’t speak for others of course, but I haven’t seen static from a video camera or television set in about 10 years or so. Video malfunctions today tend to either black out the screen or break up the image into pixelated cubes.
–Visual homages to Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” are sprinkled here and there, with Andy wearing a bright red hoody and Chucky’s glowing ‘remote control’ finger being reminiscent of the healing touch of the extraterrestrial. Andy and the AI doll’s budding friendship also darkly mirrors that of Elliott and E.T, with the doll learning many ‘human’ customs for the first time via Andy’s tutelage. That this artificial being later acts as Andy’s avenger and hopelessly codependent ‘best friend’ also speaks to the danger of modern kids who lose themselves online, ignoring real world relationships and responsibilities in the process.
–A toy police car drives by with Peter Weller’s “Robocop” (1987) giving his signature warning, “Dead or alive you’re coming with me.” Both “Robocop” and “Child’s Play” were released from Orion Pictures. There’s a brief nod to “Star Wars”, as Andy’s original name for his doll is “Han Solo”, which the doll rejects in favor of “Chucky” (Hamill, of course, played Luke in the Star Wars saga). Director Klevberg lovingly homages 1980s cinema.
–New Andy also wears a hearing aid, which is ironic since he is the one who is seemingly never believed nor listened to, except by his sometimes doubting friends and sympathetic neighbor, Detective Mike. Sadly, Mike’s ill-fated mother Doreen (Carlease Burke) meets her end en route to her bingo game in an Amazon-style self-drive car under Chucky’s control. Andy frantically tries to warn Doreen about not riding in the smart-car, but she doesn’t hear him. Once again, no one listens to the boy. One wonders who truly has the hearing issues in the film…?
–While the insanely talented Mark Hamill isn’t used nearly enough for my satisfaction, he does deliver a sufficiently creepy performance as a more misguided than deliberately malicious Chucky. More of a murderous Pinocchio than a body-swapping Charles Manson. Dourif’s Chucky sought to ultimately take control of Andy’s body, whereas Hamill’s model is just fatally codependent.
–Tim Matheson’s portrayal of slick, Tim Cook-like executive “Henry Kaslan” is a deliberate slap at the lack of responsibility seen in recent big-tech CEOs such as Cook, Marc Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. The rich and powerful faces of companies who always manage to carefully sidestep any liability when their products are misused. They are never held accountable, of course…
Handle With Care.
Having seen the movie with a fellow horror fan/friend of mine, one’s appreciation for the rebooted “Child’s Play” will depend on how much one can suspend disbelief and enjoy this darkly comical farce directed at the needlessly complicated devices and toys that run (or ruin) our lives in the 21st century. While the movie’s gore is predictably over-the-top, its tone is more in keeping with the campier sequels than with the straighter horror of the original. Personally, I enjoyed this rebooted “Child’s Play” more for its commentary at current consumer culture than for any thrills and chills (I worked retail years ago, and still bear the scars). This new “Child’s Play” is hardly the last word on horror or even consumer satire, but it takes a halfway decent stab at both, offering an undemanding 90 minute matinee or future Netflix viewing.