For all its ridiculousness, Tom Holland’s original Child’s Play didn’t pull many punches. Outside the delightfully wicked sight of a red-haired doll pitter-pattering down the hallway in blue overalls while maniacally wielding a kitchen knife, the film could be downright shocking and brutal at times, unafraid to go to dark places that would make viewers cringe not only from kills, but from its voodoo-serial killer concept. A disappointment then that 2019’s re-imagining, which chucks all but the most basic parts of the premise, seems to often lose its nerve when it comes to true horror. Instead, this version of Child’s Play almost goes out of its way to make sure that no one is too uncomfortable with its kids-in-peril plot, unless it’s merely a bit of squeamishness from the occasional squirt of blood. The result is a plastic slasher devoid of anything memorable — competently made, sometimes funny, lacking in tension, never scary.
This time around there’s no Charles Lee Ray, no mystical transfer of souls: when a Vietnamese factory worker who assembles and programs wireless-enabled ‘Buddi’ dolls decides to call it quits, he (for whatever reason) changes the behavioral parameters of one of the toys, disabling safety features put in place to prevent its A.I. from turning aggressive and violent. Eventually, the defective product winds up in the hands of lowly department store clerk Karen Barclay, who makes a birthday gift of it to her thirteen-year-old son, Andy. While there appear to be a few minor glitches (including the doll naming itself ‘Chucky,’ which makes no sense now), Andy successfully imprints upon his new toy, and the hi-tech device starts to absorb the information of world around it. After some playful mishaps, the two develop the kind of creepy, weird bond between teenager and machine that simply must go horribly wrong.
And it does, but not in any truly satisfying way. Almost every human in this film is tiresome in one way or another — whether it’s Karen’s relentless, detached sardonicism, Andy’s brattish whining, or his obnoxious friends’ delusional hipness, there is little to root for with these people outside a killing spree. Instead of being anxious for the heroes’ survival, I found myself silently cheering Chucky on, hoping the filmmakers would have the guts to inject some unpredictability and danger into the proceedings. Unfortunately, one of the more egregious miscalculations that Child’s Play makes is also populating its world with easy-sleazy side characters, all of whom stand egregiously out when compared to the merely annoying, and are plainly telegraphed to get some sort of nasty comeuppance that they clearly ‘deserve’ (even the family pet is an asshole). These idiots take the place of any real threat; but since when is a couple of jerks getting bumped off by lawn equipment or shop tools the least bit frightening? It’s when the good guys are in trouble that we nudge toward the edge of our seats.
The original understood this, and focused on developing Karen, a younger (and thus more sympathetic) Andy, and a police officer named Mike Norris as it slowly dawns on them that they are being terrorized by a snarly, supernatural predator. This Child’s Play takes too many time outs for non-story-relevant victims, brushing aside characters we might actually want to get to know in favor of meeting the blood quota. Detective Mike is also present in this 2019 version, but he’s relegated to an awkward periphery, cracking worthless dad jokes when an investigation might provide some actual suspense; Karen mostly stands around and looks bored, and she’s right to do so — the writers have stripped the character of both screen time and any initiative; a kindly neighbor offers a chance at earning our goodwill, but settles for perpetual superficiality.
At least there’s still Chucky, right? Siding with the killer in a slasher film generally isn’t desirable, but perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended all along. Sure, this new doll design is somehow even more aesthetically repulsive than the original, but there’s a toddler-like innocence to Chucky’s perception of the world, a need to belong that is almost endearing. It kills to be loved, and can you blame it? Unlike John Connor, Andy fails to explain morality to this machine, so there shouldn’t be a shock when the thing doesn’t understand why peeling someone’s face off isn’t socially acceptable behavior. Couple a few betrayals of his trust with Mark Hamill’s decidedly less menacing voice work (Brad Douriff gave the original Chucky a cackling bite never really present here), and it’s hard to not feel for the little buddy, even when it’s slicing away at the back of someone’s legs.
Those motivations prevent Chucky’s shenanigans from being even the slightest bit frightening, but the impressive range of the doll does keep Child’s Play mildly interesting. Credit the effects team with keeping Chucky relatively grounded in the physical world; while perhaps not as effective as that chilling mix of animatronics and a live actor that the original blended so well, this bot is quite believable, and apart from a few noticeable shots at the end, it was often hard to tell where the real-world object ended and the CGI began. Too bad the flat staging and direction don’t help carry the creative technical load more. Whereas Holland’s camera reinforced his subject by peeking around corners and scampering across dusty lots, stalking prey through the eyes of a peewee predator, director Lars Klevberg sticks primarily to established angles and obvious tricks. A refrigerator door opens, blocking the view of a doorway — what do you suppose will be there when it closes? That’s about as clever as it gets.
There are hints at what could have been, such as a chaotic shopping mart scene, but Child’s Play seems perfectly satisfied to stay well within serviceable, audience-friendly boundaries. Much of it is strangely played for laughs, as if lazily campy wise-cracks are the pinnacle of horror entertainment. We get it; you know the premise is ridiculous. It was in the first film. But at least they seemed to care, to take it seriously. And after a startlingly cruel hammer to an innocent babysitter’s head, I did too. Unfortunately, this malfunctioning piece of hardware seems to have too many inhibitors still active; the result is an unsuccessful reboot.