By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman and Brian Tyree Henry
Directed by Lars Klevberg
Written by Tyler Burton Smith
CHILD’S PLAY may one of the most unnecessary ’80s-horror remakes of the long-running trend, not least because Don Mancini and co. are still continuing the original Chucky’s adventures. But very low expectations are met with a surprising amount of ghoulishly amusing entertainment in CHILD’S PLAY ’19, which manages a fresh take on the deadly doll that works well for a while.
As befits our electronically connected age, these newly conceived toys (known as Buddis instead of Good Guys) are part of a wide-ranging line of cloud-based tech from the Kaslan Corporation—which means greater implications than one walking, stalking killer should a Buddi go bad. That’s just what happens in a Kaslan manufacturing plant in Vietnam (the establishing title serving as an early joke), where a disgruntled employee sabotages the doll he’s putting together. Among other things, he disables its “violence inhibitor,” and if you’re wondering why this plaything would need a violence inhibitor in the first place, you’re probably thinking about it too hard.
Anyway, this ticking time bomb of a toy winds up being brought home by single mom Karen Barclay, played by Aubrey Plaza, whose trademark snark is just what the character needs to bring a different kind of edge to the role Catherine Hicks portrayed in the original. Her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman from LIGHTS OUT and ANNABELLE, which coincidentally has a sequel giving CHILD’S PLAY similarly themed competition this month) is older in this incarnation, about 13. He’s too old to be playing with dolls, and Tyler Burton Smith’s screenplay gets ahead of any such criticism by having Andy point that out himself as soon as Karen gifts him with a Buddi that was returned to the “Zed Mart” where she works.
He also notes something that was evident from the moment the first images of the redesigned Chucky surfaced: He looks creepy and weird even before he begins exhibiting antisocial behavior, with too-large eyes and an oddly shaped face. This CHILD’S PLAY doesn’t attempt the mounting suspense of Tom Holland’s original, waiting for the moment when the initially cute but voodoo-possessed Chucky will start going bad, paying off in that startling reveal when he screams profanities at Karen. Given how familiar we are with Chucky’s nature at this point, it was probably a wise move for director Lars Klevberg (a Norwegian filmmaker whose debut feature POLAROID was orphaned by both Dimension and Netflix) and Smith to play the proceedings for dark, occasionally gore-drenched humor instead, and the approach works, particularly in the first half.
The filmmakers also get at a few trenchant themes that set their CHILD’S PLAY apart from its predecessor, in which Chucky’s malevolence was supernaturally motivated. This sentient robot truly believes he’s Andy’s “friend to the end,” and becomes an ultraviolent extension of the boy’s anger at those who displease him (starting with—ulp—the family cat). There’s even a touch of social commentary when Chucky observes Andy and a couple of his friends laughing at the over-the-top carnage in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, and quickly comes to the conclusion that violence = fun. Of course, the movie itself believes in that same truism, but it is nice to see a gory fright flick flirt with something involving self-awareness.
Of invaluable assist is the Chucky voice work by Mark Hamill—a perfect choice based on his past experience as the Joker et al., and one that fully pays off. In concert with the expressive animatronics creations of Todd Masters and his MastersFX, Hamill makes a real character with palpable emotions out of Chucky, even achieving a bit of poignance for the living doll and really selling the menace when he goes full evil. As such, it’s kind of a shame that Chucky gets sidelined in the later going as he remotely compels other devices to do his dirty work, though he does rally for a more hands-on, mano-a-mano confrontation at the climax.
CHILD’S PLAY 2019 gets enough things right—no doubt unexpectedly for many die-hard fans—that one wishes it didn’t sometimes lose its way after the lengthy and effective setup. There are digressions that don’t really work, including an extended bit of business involving a severed head—or severed face on another head, it’s never quite clear—and new characters keep getting introduced to diffuse the story when a tighter focus on the core human trio (rounded out by Detective Mike, who here lives with his mom down the hall from the Barclays and is played appealingly by Brian Tyree Henry) would have been preferable. Still, one does have to appreciate that the filmmakers eschewed the lazy route of rehashing the Charles Lee Ray scenario and took a shot at something different—one that hits its targets often enough to make their rendition of CHILD’S PLAY worth a watch.