Child's Play (2019)

Lars Klevberg

Gabriel Bateman - Andy Barclay
Mark Hamill - Voice of Chucky
Aubrey Plaza - Karen Barclay
Brian Tyree Henry - Detective Mike Norris
Tim Matheson - Henry Kaslan
David Lewis - Shane
Carlease Burke - Doreen Norris
Marlon Kazadi - Omar Norris
Beatrice Kitsos - Falyn
Ty Consiglio - Pugg

Genre - Horror/Slasher

Running Time - 90 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
A mother (Aubrey Plaza) gives her 13-year-old son (Gabriel Bateman) a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Back in 1989, I watched 1988’s CHILD’S PLAY in theaters in a double-feature with NO HOLDS BARRED. While I was probably more of a wrestling fan than a horror fan at that point in my life, the origin of serial killer Charles Lee Ray sending his soul into a Good Guy doll named Chucky left more of an impression on me. CHILD’S PLAY gave me the creeps as a child, especially since I owned a Teddy Ruxpin doll and was terrified it would turn evil on me. CHILD’S PLAY was a pretty big hit at the time, making Chucky a horror icon alongside Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Ever since, we were blessed [or cursed, depending on who you are] with six sequels that varied from stereotypical slashers to straight up dark comedies that either invited or turned off fans along the way. The series had lost its way for a while until the recent direct-to-blu-ray releases [CURSE and CULT] brought the film back to its horror roots and opened up a new mythology that an upcoming SyFy television series plans on continuing with much excitement. Don Mancini’s creation has been going strong for over 30 years with no end in sight.

Which made it surprising when MGM announced a remake of CHILD’S PLAY - a remake that Don Mancini had no part of or no say into what it’ll involve. The idea started becoming dour when it was revealed that Chucky would be an evil AI rather than a doll possessed by the soul of a killer, making many wonder what the point of all of this was besides a cash grab. Even an interesting cast and a couple of trailers didn’t really boost my interest in this reboot of sorts. It was only when Mark Hamill was announced as the voice of the new Chucky that I started to get curious about the project, especially when Hamill is one of the best voice actors of any generation. Even though none of my friends or family wanted to go see it, I decided to go to the theater to see the new version of CHILD’S PLAY like I had 30 years ago. I went in with low expectations, yet with an open mind since I knew this wouldn’t be the Chucky I’m familiar with. And surprisingly, I had a lot of fun with the new CHILD’S PLAY. It’s not perfect and nowhere as good as the original film, but there’s a lot to appreciate here if you’re willing to give it a chance.

I think what I liked the most about 2019’s CHILD’S PLAY is the unexpected substance the story actually presents. Since there is no longer a possession storyline going on in this version, the producers had to come up with a modern twist as to why Chucky is evil. While making the doll a faulty AI that learns to be violent is not a novel idea at all, at least it’s used to create somewhat a social commentary on our reliance on technology. No longer a Good Guy doll, the Buddi doll is pretty much the film’s version of Amazon’s Alexa product - a device used to turn other devices on, play music or movies, order food or products, and other activities that have really made our society a bit lazy and too easy to make things happen and get them done. While this is convenient technology, it could also come with negative effects - such as reports that Alexa actually records things and relays them to the government as some sort of spy. While it’s unclear that Chucky is doing this, the fact that he’s not technically where he should be as a device makes him an unseen danger to those around him. Technology always advances and believe me, I’m grateful that certain aspects of my life are made easier just by voice recognition or a click of a button. But with the good, there’s always the bad. Chucky is an embodiment of this, doing bad things because he doesn’t understand morality. And why should he since he’s just an AI? 

There are other moments in the film that also add to the commentary. A focus of the film’s final act, a new version of the Buddi doll [the Buddi II] receives a huge presentation at the local big chain store like any new video game, sneakers, or even smartphone would. It’s a version that fixes the flaws of the original, even coming in different skins like animals and different ethnicities. This is obviously a “first world problem” that a lot of us fall into, wanting that new piece of technology because it’s faster, more reliable and even stronger than the previous edition. The film doesn’t really do much with it by the end of the film, but at least it brings it up and showcases our view on technology in general. We evolve as soon as it evolves. Another moment involves the film’s Uber system that picks up riders in a remote-control car that doesn’t require a driver, taking people across town via GPS through an app. The media has debated back-and-forth whether this type of smart car is a safety concern, which CHILD’S PLAY definitely showcases the negative aspect of it, leading to deadly results. For a remake that could have just capitalized on what was done before for some quick cash, CHILD’S PLAY 2019 tries to be more intelligent in what it wants to say. I appreciated that and was a very good approach to separate it from the original film to be its own thing.

I also thought the new Chucky character was handled well. I liked that we were told Chucky was faulty from the start, due to some disgruntled worker in Vietnam who wanted to do damage to his employer. This guy took off all the safety and security protocols, giving an easy reason why Chucky becomes what he would become. I also bought that he was treated as an afterthought by Andy, who felt he was too old for a doll, slowly endearing himself with Chucky because of his fierce loyalty to him. And that’s one of the biggest differences between this film and the original. In the 1988 version, Chucky used Andy in order to trust him enough to steal his body by transporting his soul into it. In the new version, Chucky is actually extremely fond of Andy and wants to be his bestest friend - to the point that Chucky wants no one else taking his spot in Andy’s life. Chucky, also, doesn’t start as a killer but learns from things he sees, especially taking notes from a quick viewing of 1986’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 which leads to a cool death sequence later on in the film. I’m guessing that’s a take on the whole UK controversy of the early-1990s, where there were a couple of murders blamed on the original CHILD’S PLAY series. The 2019 version is a FATAL ATTRACTION tale that I kind of dug, giving this iteration of Chucky a different path he can travel if they decide to make sequels in this continuity. 

I will say that Chucky’s new design wasn’t great though. I got used to it as the film went on, but it looked pretty funky to me - and not in a good way. I’m glad they didn’t totally copy the original design, but that’s the best they could come up with? I’m surprised anyone would want a doll that looks like this version in their home. At least the original design had an attractive appeal, like those Cabbage Patch Kids from back in the day.

The other characters aren’t as interesting as Chucky, unfortunately, but some are definitely better than others. I liked Andy Barclay, as he is less naive and more action-oriented than the original version. He’s over the whole toy phase, more interested in playing on his smartphone. But he grows to like Chucky since the toy is the only person who doesn’t judge him. When Andy does befriend some neighborhood kids, Chucky starts feeling neglected, which leads to some violent moments. He also has a strange dynamic with his mother, where they act more like siblings than mother and son. I wish there was more of that in the film. I also wish there was use of Andy’s hearing disability [he has a hearing aid]. The only times it would come to play is when Chucky would create static that would disrupt the aid. Other than that, nothing comes of it besides being a plot device to justify why Andy feels like an outcast. A part of me wishes that the character was a bit younger like in the original to create a bit of tension within his friendship with Chucky. But I didn’t mind the change all that much. I also liked the new version of Mike Norris, the film’s resident detective. Instead of being a hard ass, this version of Mike is a likable and funny guy who visits his mother [who happens to be Andy’s neighbor] and sort of plays surrogate dad to Andy whenever Andy’s mom had to work the late shift. The moments where the two interact as friends are some of the best moments in the film, but there aren’t enough of them unfortunately. Still, I liked the different dynamic between Andy’s relationship with the Norris family when compared to the relationship with his own family. 

Speaking of that, I felt that Karen Barclay was a wasted character for the most part. It’s one of those situations where I can’t help but compare the reboot with the original. The original Karen was a pro-active, strong and caring mother who tried to save Andy from the evil of Chucky, once she found out about the doll. She had a lot of depth and enough personality for the audience to sympathize and care about her. In the new version, she’s a troubled single mom who seems more into making her boyfriend happy than giving her handicapped son any sort of attention. In fact, I never felt a mother and son vibe between her and Andy, but more of a sibling one. It was kind of sad and maybe that was the point. But I didn’t really care about this version of the character. I also thought Karen’s boyfriend, Steve, was your stereotypical asshole who just used Karen for sex and treated Andy like he was an obstacle in his happiness. I did like the twist with the character, which only makes you hate him more, but not much depth besides that. And while Andy’s neighborhood friends had cool moments and added things throughout the film, they were never really given enough development for us to know them really. It was as if CHILD’S PLAY wanted to do what a lot of other horror films involving children and teenagers feel compelled to do - borrow from Netflix’s Stranger Things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced. And it felt forced here because it never felt earned. Like one moment, one of Andy’s bullies treats him like crap and then they’re best friends in the next scene. I don’t mind Andy having a squad to take down an evil AI doll, but give it some justification.

The direction by Lars Klevberg was mostly positive. The film looked great and I thought Klevberg really showcased the death sequences really well. In particular, I loved the scene involving a lawn mower and Christmas lights that was bloody fun [pun intended]. There’s also that scene with the Uber car that I mentioned previously, plus drones attacking and dolls going apeshit on people in a store. When CHILD’S PLAY is out for blood, it doesn’t mess around and uses the R rating well. In most of these scenes too, Klevberg provides some nice atmosphere and suspense, which I honestly wasn’t expecting. It was nice to have a sick feeling of excitement when you realized some bad stuff was going to go down because of Chucky.

I also felt that Klevberg directed the first half better than the second. The first half was more about the set up and focusing on the blossoming relationship with Andy and the people around him, especially Chucky. When they’re playing board games, watching television, or trying to scare neighbors for fun, it’s an enjoyable watch. It also helps separate the reboot from the original, making us forget about what we’ve been familiar with for decades. The second half’s strong suit are the deaths. But it loses its way besides that. The film starts to feel rushed, with some editing that felt really choppy. It was as if the studio only wanted a 90 minute film, so the director and editor had to cut a ton of stuff to make the important elements fit within the run time. I usually don’t want long films, but here’s an example where I wish maybe we had gotten fifteen more minutes to tell a fuller story. I would have been okay with that. Visually, Klevberg did a nice job overall.

The acting in CHILD’S PLAY was fine. Mark Hamill, obviously, steals the show as the voice of Chucky. I still think Brad Dourif shouldn’t have been replaced [thankfully he’s voicing the television series], but Hamill did give Chucky a lot of life. I like how innocent he sounds until he gets angry, cackling and acting deranged once the full violence demeanor kicks in. There was a bit of Joker in there at times, plus the laugh resembled Dourif’s, which was a nice touch of respect. Hamill was probably the best replacement you were going to get for the character and he did a great job. I also liked Gabriel Bateman as Andy. I thought he had nice rapport with the rest of the cast and really brought something authentic and genuine to a role that could have been really annoying and unsympathetic. He made Andy feel like a real teenager dealing with angst, just wanting someone to try and understand him without judgment. I also liked how Bateman played against Chucky, giving the character a nice foil. Aubrey Plaza is great, but she doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Karen. She does have her quirky moments that are funny at times, but I wish she had more things to do in the film. Brian Tyree Henry was great as Mike Norris. He has nice comedic timing, but can also bring the seriousness too. It was a total 180 degrees from Chris Sarandon’s take on the character and I appreciated it. The actors who played the children were good in their archetypical roles. I liked the cast, even though some of them got short-changed in the script.

Probably the movie surprise of 2019 so far, the reboot of CHILD’S PLAY is actually pretty darn good. The first half of the film is really strong, while the more flawed second half has cool moments of gore and kill sequences. The direction was very good for the most part, even though it rushes through its final act and plays it a bit too safe, in my opinion. The acting, especially by Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman and Brian Tyree Henry, is solid. CHILD’S PLAY does what a good remake should do - maintain elements of the original concept and update it for a newer generation by being its own thing. I wasn’t expecting much of out of this film, but it provided some clever and witty commentary about our over reliance on technology that created some memorable and entertaining moments. Go into this one with an open mind and don’t try to compare it too much to the original. On its own, it’s a solid reinvention of a beloved character that ought to be appreciated for what it does right.

3 Howls Outta 4

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