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There’s a joke in the opening stretch of the Child’s Play reboot that sums up the movie’s problems as a whole. After 13-year-old deaf kid Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is given a high-tech Buddi doll (voiced by Mark Hamill) by his single mom (Aubrey Plaza), he ponders aloud what to name it. The teen decides to call it Han Solo, only for the toy to dub himself Chucky.
Like much of Child’s Play 2019, I see the potential for comedy. Yet, the joke doesn’t land. If you wanted to reference Star Wars and Mark Hamill’s role within the franchise, wouldn’t deciding to call the toy Luke Skywalker make more sense. Meanwhile, why does the doll want to be named Chucky. In the original, that was the nickname of the killer who possessed the kids toy. Here on the other hand, the doll goes crazy after the Vietnamese employee assembling it disables its safety features. This is after his boss fires him and before he commits suicide.
The Star Wars joke may seem minor. But it’s reflective of a film that awkwardly tries to draw on audience’s nostalgia for older franchises without understanding what made them good. While the movie is called Child’s Play, it bears virtually no relation to the still effectively creepy Don Mancini penned Tom Holland directed horror from 1988.
While that film had some underlying comedy – thanks to its bananas premise and electric voice work from character actor supreme Brad Dourif – it’s predominately a thriller. It preys upon the unsettling uncanny feeling staring at a lifeless doll can evoke. Holland spends half of that movie shooting Chucky deathly still, with all his murderous antics happening off-screen and from the killer’s POV, playing into those fears.
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In this reboot, the real-life terror being drawn on is artificial intelligence. Here the doll is capable of interfacing with other electronic devices, resulting in an admirably gruesome toy store set finale. Yet, despite how impressive the new Chucky looks – rendered with a blend of practical on-set puppet work and digital enhancements – he is never scary. Partly this is because he’s a high tech electronic device. Therefore, it’s not creepy to see him walk and talk but expected. Another reason is Hamill’s voice is too similar to the other villains he’s found a second wind voicing in the past few years. He lacks the feral mania of Dourif’s take on the character.
Then, there’s the fact that the 13-year-old in this film’s actions make less sense than the six-year old in the 1988 movie. In the remake, even after Chucky murders Andy’s cat – on account of it scratching the teen – he does not tell his mom. Instead, he says loudly in the toy’s vicinity that he wished his mother’s mean boyfriend would die, leading to another impressively staged but predictable killing. There’s a movie to be made about a disturbed boy who uses his murderous doll to off those who wrong him. Yet here, Andy’s role in the many deaths are presented as accidental with us meant to root for him despite his stupidity.
So with very little horror – outside of some stylish slashery ends for characters – is the Child’s Play reboot at least funny? Well Aubrey Plaza is. She brings her trademark deadpan delivery, as well as a nice world weariness to her role as a young single mom. Also as a momma’s boy cop investigating the crimes of Chucky, Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry is a lot of fun.
However, everything that’s funny about this Child’s Play is down to their quirks as actors, not the script. When actors far from their calibre – such as child stars Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio playing new wacky friends of Andy – try to land jokes, the result is often cringe.
If Child’s Play 1988 is an expensive toy you would pick up in Smyths or Toymaster, the 2019 version is like a cheap knock-off made from disparate parts you might buy from a street peddler on holidays. It looks good but it doesn’t hold together for long.