'Child's Play': Film Review

Too dolled up.

Mark Hamill provides the voice of the killer doll in this slick but frivolous remake of the 1988 horror hit, also starring Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry.

Say what you will about the seven films in the Child's Play series. Their frequent unevenness aside, they're clearly homespun and filled with love. Creator Don Mancini and his loyal band of performers — including the inimitable Brad Dourif (as knife-wielding plaything Chucky) and the incomparable Jennifer Tilly (as the fleshly and plasticine love interest) — have concocted a troubadour's mythos out of a very simple premise: Dying serial killer demonically possesses doll. Bloodletting ensues.

The series began as horror, turned to comedy with this reviewer's personal favorite entry — 1998's visually evocative, shamelessly ribald Bride of Chucky  then segued back to straight-faced scares with two solid DTV entries, Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), that slimmed down the scale while expanding the lore. A Mancini-produced television show is also on the horizon. Think of all the special guest stars Chucky could kill! (Meryl, here's your Big Little Lies follow-up.) But now comes this controversial remake/reboot, minus Mancini, and hailing from the MGM-owned Orion Pictures, which holds the rights to the first (and only the first) Child's Play feature.

Mancini has made his displeasure with this redo known. And the biggest knock against it is that the idiosyncratic qualities (up, down and in-between) of the other films in the series have been sanded and smoothed. Stem to stern, this 88-minute slasher runs like the clockwork bit of machinery it is, and that baseline competence effectively leeches it of personality.

There is some pleasure in watching a machine do its job, of course. And director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith have streamlined the tale to the point that Chucky (now voiced by Mark Hamill, doing a semi-subdued spin on his iconic Joker from Batman: The Animated Series) goes cuckoo almost instantly. The serial killer subplot is dispensed with entirely. Chucky is now one in a series of "Buddi" dolls, a kind of Amazon Alexa given an uncanny Valley countenance and full-motion capabilities.

In the film's best joke, Chucky's moral programming is excised by a disgruntled worker in the Vietnamese sweatshop where these AI-enhanced home assistants are produced. (Take that, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos, you cruel, capitalist outsourcers!) Not as funny, and fairly revealing: Chucky throws that exploited laborer off the roof of the factory, even though the pic goes to great lengths to suggest that the doll's murderous tendencies are learned and not innate. That blood has to flow so quickly, despite resulting in a glaring character inconsistency, exposes the underlying cynicism of the whole enterprise.

As in the original Child's Play, Chucky eventually finds his way into the hands of young Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman), here reconceived as an introverted, hard-of-hearing adolescent with a MILF-y madre, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), whose choice in men is, shall we say, execrable. The moment you see Karen's dickish boyfriend, Shane (David Lewis), you just know his entrails are gonna spill.

First, though, Chucky has to acquire homicidal knowledge, something he gleans from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the wild and wackadoo tone of which the filmmakers strain to emulate. (Brace yourself for the Tupac Shakur gag!) From this excessive, Tobe Hooper-helmed source text, Chucky learns various forms of flesh-rending, which begin on the family cat and eventually lead to Shane, whose gruesomely drawn-out and admittedly hilarious death gives new meaning to the moniker "Leatherface."

Chucky sees the murders as offerings of friendship to Andy, though the young man views things much differently. Not surprisingly, he's unable to convince any of the adults in the room, be it lovingly oblivious Mom or the friendly detective (Brian Tyree Henry — far, far from Beale Street) who lives down the hall, of his best "buddi's" killer instincts.

This Child's Play puts a lot of stock in the notion of AI run amok — hardly a new conceit, though one that at least affords some giddily gruesome business during the film's discount-store climax, as Chucky uses his connection to the cloud to make other Buddis do his savage bidding. 

Nothing on display here beats Bride of Chucky's doll-on-doll sex scene, of course, nor that marvelous moment in the first Child's Play when Chucky's goody-goody expression drops, he hurls some choice invective at poor Catherine Hicks and then exits the scene Trilogy of Terror style. The makeshift nature of Mancini's originals handily outshines this slick, corporate cash-grab. I'll still give Child's Play redux this: best end-credits song since Gran Torino.

Production companies: Orion Pictures, Bron Creative, KatzSmith Productions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Oddfellows Entertainment, TF1 Studio
Distributor: United Artists

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson
Director: Lars Klevberg
Screenplay: Tyler Burton Smith, based on characters created by Don Mancini
Producers: Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg
Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Chris Ferguson, Aaron L. Gilbert, Aaron Schmidt
Director of photography: Brendan Uegama
Production designer: Dan Hermansen
Costume designer: Jori Woodman
Editors: Tom Elkins, Julia Wong
Music: Bear McCreary
Casting director: Chelsea Ellis Bloch

Rated R, 88 minutes