CHILD’S PLAY (2019): A Corporate Cash-Grab With Subversive Undertones?

Horror fans are mostly numb to the unending string of reboots and remakes that modern Hollywood pumps out but the new Child’s Play managed to rise above the status quo and inspire some genuine controversy. For starters, the original Child’s Play series never ended: screenwriter/creator Don Mancini has kept that franchise going since 1988 and is currently prepping a t.v. show version. Needless to say, he came out against this remake in the press and a lot of fans are inclined to agree. That said, MGM had a rights loophole they could exploit and cranked one out. The results, while not perfect, are much better than you might expect.

The new Child’s Play picks and chooses from the elements of the original film. You’ve still got a lonely kid hero, a plucky single mom and a doll that goes on a killing spree. However, the voodoo/serial killer elements of the Tom Holland classic are thrown out in a favor of a doll whose A.I.-style robotics go awry when they are maliciously reprogrammed by an abused employee in the Vietnam manufacturing sweatshop of tech manufacturer Kaslan.

Said doll ends up in the home of Andy (Gabriel Bateman), an introverted kid struggling with a move to a new apartment building. His flighty but loving mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) retrieves the doll, part of a popular line called “Buddi,” from the return pile at her store job as a gift for the tech-obsessed Andy. He takes to it, even managing to use it to make friends with the local kids.

Unfortunately, Chucky’s programming leads him to become protective to the point of homicidal acts when dealing with his “best friend” Andy – and even more dangerous when spurned, using his A.I.-assisted connection to the other Kaslan-manufactured devices everywhere around him to isolate Andy and bump off interlopers. Thus, it’s up to Andy to lead the charge to stop Chucky before his whole support system is snuffed out.

This version of Child’s Play is the rare reboot that manages to retain a lot of the appealing elements of the original – kid hero, killer doll, elaborate death setpieces – while generating a unique new vibe for the proceedings. It does this by replacing the supernatural with the eerie yet more plausible threat of rogue A.I.  This adds a new complexity to Chucky’s attacks by allowing him to bend other smart devices to his will. It also gives the character new complexity, making him more of a tragic monster who has been manipulated by others rather than a standard-issue psycho in a plastic body.

This version also maintains the blend of humor and horror, something necessary for a film about a killer doll. Unfortunately, writer Tyler Burton Smith and director Lars Klevburg have trouble blending these elements as skillfully as the original film did: for example, a common complaint with viewers is a bit of slapsticky business involving a severed body part impulsively hidden in gift wrapping that gets passed around on its way to being disposed of.  This plot thread is a little too silly and takes up too much time as a plot point, shortchanging some of the other more interesting, sci fi-ish elements.

That said, the new Child’s Play remains an effective little programmer. Klevburg and Smith both show an admirable sense of economy in their storytelling, giving the proceedings a sturdy structure and reliable sense of drive. They’re also not afraid to get gruesome when it’s time for the horror, including a couple of setpieces involving deadly tools that paint the screen red with surprising gusto. They manage a suitably bonkers finale that exploits both the sci-fi and horror elements of the reworked premise with skill. 

It also helps that Klevburg has chosen a likeable, game cast to put through the film’s funny/horrific paces. Bateman makes a likeable misfit-kid hero, hitting both the dramatic and humorous beats with skill. Plaza is given perhaps a little too much leeway to be funny here and there but she still crafts a compelling portrait of a mom who means well but sometimes makes poor decisions.  Brian Tyree Henry also does likeable work in the film’s inspired reworking of the cop character, who is well-integrated into the story and written to make use of the actor’s comedic chops.

Finally, it has to be mentioned that Mark Hamill provides excellent voice work as Chucky.  Filling Brad Dourif’s shoes is no small task but Hamill succeeds by playing against killer doll type in accordance with the script’s “accidental villain” take on Chucky. He wisely underplays, gradually building up flashes of menace as the A.I. unit goes awry. When the ending demands it, he brings the necessary darkness in a way that reflects the skill he’s built over the years doing voice acting in cartoons. A key example is how he handles a song built into the doll’s programming, giving it different shadings for different scenes (everything from maudlin to fiendish – stick around for the end credits to hear a spine-tingling bonus rendition).

In short, this version of Child’s Play beats the corporate cash-grab odds by taking its own dark, sometimes daring approach. On that tip, it’s worth noting that the filmmakers weave in darkly funny commentary on our device-driven era by setting their tale in a disturbingly relatable world where people are becoming alienated, distracted and dominated by a one-two punch of pervasive consumer technology and insidious corporations.  A film from a major corporation warning you of the dangers of corporations is likeably subversive: if that concept amuses you, there’s caustic fun to be had here.

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