Chucky is creepy in 2019’s Child’s Play reboot, and not necessarily for the right reasons. This updated version of the classic killer doll crosses the uncanny valley so much that I question whether the art designer was even going for human features. It’s like an AI interpretation of the human face, albeit one that’s being melted into CreepyPasta play-doh. I guess it makes sense, given how this version of Chucky is a digital creation, rather than an ordinary doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer.
It’s a shame about Chucky’s disturbing appearance, because everything else surrounding Child’s Play isn’t bad. In fact, there’s a genuinely gruesome, yet campy, piece of horror entertainment underneath the uncomfortable central visual. But the film gets a bit too big for its camp premise, particularly in its attempt to modernize a long running horror franchise for the digital era. It scares, it thrills, it makes you laugh, and it had me holding in my breath a few times. But there’s an excessiveness to Child’s Play, both in the goriness and absurdity of how this new Chucky goes bad that pushes against its overall immersion. Or at least as far as killer dolls pose for realism.
Don’t expect Charles Lee Ray to announce his presence. The new Chucky is a byproduct of Kaslan Industries, whose Buddi doll has been out for a year and offers the most state of the art tech ever given to a doll. It imprints onto the owner and learns from their reactions, yet a disgruntled Vietnamese employee, angered by his boss’ treatment, decides to remove all of language, behavior and VIOLENCE protocols from one last Buddi before shipment. Why in God’s name a doll would be programed with those attributes is beyond me.
This reprogramed Buddi (voiced by Mark Hamill), is picked up by Karen Barclay (Audrey Plaza), a department store worker in need of a gift for her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Like most horror families, they’re new to this part of the city and Andy could use some friends. He’s not the most ecstatic to play with a doll at first but eventually names it Chucky, albeit after its audio functions mishear a certain Star Wars name. However, the idea of this doll being its owner’s best friend no matter what takes a darker turn when Chucky gets wind of Andy’s personal life- lack of friends, mom dating an asshole, bad pet, etcetera. And whether Andy wants it or not, Chucky’s possessiveness for his “best friend” leads to the little guy turning quite violent.
The behind the scene politics of this reboot are… shady. While the Child’s Play franchise hasn’t seen much theatrical releases, its home video sequels are actually well received and continue the original film’s storyline, complete with returning performances by Alex Vincent and Brad Dourif. So this reboot feels like an unnecessary backstab constructed by the need to bank on an existing franchise, especially with the original Chucky timeline being made into a future TV series. Yet there are interesting ideas sprinkled throughout Child’s Play, like Chucky being “taught” violence through horror films and social media. This Black Mirror approach makes the character more of an accidental Frankenstein’s monster than a natural sociopath.
It’s also amazing how much Child’s Play embraces its hard R-rating, usually to gnarly results. Characters swear, have their limbs creatively severed and there’s an Evil Dead-level of blood at play. One particular scene involving a wrapped “gift” (no spoilers) in a neighbor’s house had me gripping my theater seat in fear that someone, particularly Brian Tyree Henry’s Detective Mike- a frequent resident of that location- would uncover its contents. The film knows how to be gruesome and, while its scare tactics shift between Saw and B-movie exploitation, it gives the viewer what they want.
Unfortunately Child’s Play’s biggest weakness is its head-scratching portrayal of Chucky: a technologically advanced murder machine with uncomfortable facial aesthetics. Mark Hamill is solid as Chucky, giving a more soft-spoken variation of his iconic Joker voice that slowly grows darker. It’s not Brad Dourif, who remains the de facto Chuck with his malevolently foul-mouthed personality, but it’s a decent blend of scary and hilarious. No, the problem is Chucky’s robo-omnipotence, capable of accessing all technology linked to Kaslan’s Apple-like media cloud. At first it’s just minimal “friendship” commands, but later on he gets an upgrade, leading to an over the top climax where this simple doll becomes Fisher Price Skynet.
The problem is that old Chucky functioned like an actual doll. His joint movements, physicality and even his mouth reflected the antagonist’s bodily constraints. And classic Chucky’s face had an innocent look to it, which made it all the more jarring when it started spewing profanities and piling up bodies. This new Chucky does not- he looks like a 3-foot mannequin from Team America: World Police meshed with awkward CGI, never quite blending into the environment. And when your villain’s appearance is harder to watch than his very gruesome kills, then congrats: you scared the audience. I’m just not sure it’s in the way you expected.
So yeah, Chucky’s face is so uncanny he doesn’t need a jump scare to make you wince. Just look him in the eye and that’ll do it for you. Yet the rest of the film succeeds at what it sets out to do: scare and entertain. Plaza and Bateman make a believable enough mother and son, with Bateman particularly eliciting sympathy for his abject terror at events transpiring beyond his control. And despite one area in the second act that reverts back to old-school Child’s Play tactics (i.e. no one believes Andy that Chucky is behind something), Andy actually finds allies in the neighboring kids against his frenemy. It’s nice to watch a horror film where characters actually take the toy slasher’s motives seriously, especially one with limiters on its ability to commit violence.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 Stars.
As a horror reboot, Child’s Play does better than expected, nailing its gruesome slasher elements and excessive gore. But its overcomplicated portrayal of Chucky’s abilities and… questionable facial designs make it hard to watch the killer in action, despite his creative deaths. It’s paradoxically an unnecessary reboot that boosts the franchise’s media status. If you want a few good scares, go see it; if you don’t want to keep an old good guy down, wait for the upcoming TV show.