It’s been more than a decade since cinema’s iconic killer doll, Chucky, has graced the big screen. Which is not to say that he’s been dormant completely. The franchise has been alive and well thanks to a couple of successful direct-to-video entries from series creator/overseer Don Mancini. However, a legal loophole has made it possible for there to be two separate Chucky franchises. While Universal has been the home to the series for the better part of almost three decades, its first home was MGM/United Artists. The latter companies had decided to wash its hands clean of any future installments due to a desire to stay away from horror. This view changed and a new Child’s Play was rushed into production with Tyler Burton Smith writing and Lars Klevberg behind the director’s seat. This review will not focus on the moral ethics with the existence of this new, separate franchise while Mancini still plans to continue his. The filmmakers, in interviews, have made one request. To judge this film on its own, which is what this review will do.
It is apparent early on in its runtime that this Child’s Play is different. Yes, the plot setup is largely the same with a single mother named Karen buying her son Andy a doll for his birthday; but outside of that and the carrying over the names/occupations of the main characters, that’s where the similarities end. It’s very much admirable that the movie goes in this direction when the filmmakers could have easily assembled a “greatest hits of Chucky” film and recycled old ideas. While the original Child’s Play’s killer doll was the result of a dying serial killer using voodoo, this one uses a more relevant idea which is artificial intelligence. While the filmmakers should be commended for going a different route with this film, it also begs the question: why make this a Child’s Play remake in the first place? A cynic would likely reply that it’s to cash in on brand name recognition, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself.
Within the opening minutes, there is a scene where a disgruntled factory worker decides to take revenge against his superiors by altering the doll’s programming. Making it possible for the doll to enact violence and even swear. It’s a ridiculous moment leaning towards parody and promises a movie that wasn’t to be. When those elements are on display, Child’s Play is a satire that explores the potential dangers that come with society’s attachment to ever-evolving technology. Chucky’s programming does not prohibit him from becoming the knife-towing baddie we know him as. Instead, he has to learn these actions. Chucky is essentially a pet with a blank slate, whose only goal is to bring his best friend joy.
It’s all fun and games when Chucky starts swearing, sneaking, and scaring. However, in these moments a lesson is learned. Though these play to Andy’s amusement, he doesn’t realize how this shapes who Chucky is. He has no internal moral compass to tell him what is right and wrong. A later example shows Chucky along with Andy and his other friends watching the 80’s cult horror-comedy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) to their hysterical amusement. It’s this scene where Chucky learns about killing and observes how violence can be played for laughs. This brings him to the conclusion that enacting violence would please Andy. It’s these moments with Andy and Chucky together along with the dark, biting satire when the film plays at its best.
Child’s Play is inconsistent, however, especially in regard to its tone. Early on it seems to be a dramatic-horror, much like the original, focusing on a single mother trying to raise her son. Then a little later, it seems to take its inspiration from the very film Andy and his friends were watching, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; which is, for the most part, a horror-comedy that satirizes the events of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The rest of Child’s Play frankly plays out as a by-the-numbers mainstream horror flick that doesn’t live up to its early potential.
The inconsistencies don’t end with its tone either as the movie struggles to gain focus. This is easily noticeable in regards to its supporting cast. Despite the early promise of a substantial role for Aubrey Plaza in the character of Karen Barclay, she is quickly cast aside once she has served her purpose of bringing together Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and Chucky (Mark Hamill). From that point forward, she only shows up as when deemed necessary to push the plot forward, starting with the introduction of the generic “step-father”-like character that she is dating for some reason. His name is next to impossible to recall because the audience knows his fate as soon as he arrives on screen. It doesn’t get much better with the other characters either. There’s Mike the cop, a carry-over from the original film, whose only purpose is to invite Andy to dinner and show up in the climax. It’s perplexing how boring these characters are, and even Andy is not exempt from this. His loneliness, shown at the beginning of the story, isn’t for long as he soon gains friends in neighbors and his doll alike. He really is only there to react to Chucky, who is the star of the show.
Hamill seems to be having fun in voicing the character, giving a vocal performance that lands somewhere in between his Joker and Brad Dourif’s Chucky. It’s mainly thanks to him and the wonderful practical effects that Chucky is able to resonate. His redesign, while a good idea, comes across on the screen as awkward. In proper lighting, it looks fairly nice, but at other times it’s downright bad. One thing the design allows the doll to be, however, is expressive. Through these movements, Chucky provides a good amount of comedy to keep the interest of the viewer and is even able to generate sympathy at parts.
One thing he never really is though is scary. This may be absurd to imagine in a world where plenty of adults refuse to look at a picture of the famed slasher icon, but this Chucky doesn’t really have it in the creepy department. The film doesn’t help him here either as the scenes of horror play out with no real tension. Instead, the viewer is treated to overly loud and unimaginative jump scares or elaborate death scenes that are mostly played for laughs. The latter is fine, but in a movie that can’t decide on its tone, it sends mixed messages to the viewer.
Child’s Play shakes up the franchise by bringing us a different kind of Chucky for better or worse. It is a movie about a killer artificial intelligence that learns its bad habits from humans. Although it shows promise early on for a darkly satirical look at technology, it doesn’t do enough to fulfill that potential. There is enjoyment to be had, especially with its comedic moments and scenes of gore that hearken back to the genre days of old. Dragged down by a dull supporting cast, tonal issues, and a generic climax, it doesn’t really earn its right for existence in the end. The practical effects go a long way in giving Chucky life, it is just a shame that the same can’t be said for films longevity with the public’s conscious.