Times have changed, and Chucky has changed with them. The original incarnation of everyone’s favorite murder doll was possessed by the soul of a serial killer, but perhaps the filmmakers of the rebooted Child’s Play realized that a white guy using voodoo magic was just a bit too much cultural appropriation for the current zeitgeist. So this version of Chucky (Mark Hamill) is based in science rather than spells. The faux-commercial that opens the film explains that Buddi dolls are now made to be the crux of smart-home technology. The tech company that makes them, Kaslan, comes off like some unholy combination of Amazon, Uber, and Apple. They produce self-driving cars, ride-hailing apps, speaker systems, and more. Buddi dolls like Chucky can connect and control all those different devices. Sounds great, right?
Well, like so many powerful American companies, Kaslan generates profits by out-sourcing its manual labor to foreign countries – in this case, Vietnam. After getting yelled at by his boss, one worker has clearly had enough, and strikes back against his First World overlords by removing all safety protocols from one particular Buddi doll. After a few bumps and bruises, that doll ends up in the hands of working single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza), who is desperate to make her young son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) feel comfortable with their new move. Since Andy all but refuses to make human friends, his mom gifts him a “friend to the end.”
Past Chucky movies have also blended horror and comedy and director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith understand that, but there’s a bit of tonal confusion here. Several characters are such comic caricatures that it’s hard to even take seriously as people, much less get emotionally invested in their brutal deaths. But on the other hand, you don’t cast comedic actors if you don’t want jokes, and Child’s Play certainly has a lot of both. Plaza spices up the Karen character with some of her trademark deadpan sarcasm, while the always-dependable Brian Tyree Henry turns Detective Mike Norris into a pathetic cop who can’t even get his own mother to respect him.
Interesting story threads (such as Chucky’s attempts to set up Andy as the most likely culprit for his own crimes) barely have time to materialize before they get bumped out of the way to make room for the big climax, which is just one example of the film’s pacing issues. The final act, which turns a toy store on release night into an apocalyptic war zone, is very fun but throws away some of its best bits (like Andy marching through the ravaged toy stacks with a chainsaw and a miniature ax like he’s on The Walking Dead) rather than giving them time to shine.
This is the first time that Chucky hasn’t been voiced by original actor Brad Dourif. Having voiced an iconic version of the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series, Hamill certainly has the chops to portray a crazed killer with a humorous edge – he even sings Andy a “best buddy” song that might be the highlight of the film’s weirdness. The bigger change is that Child’s Play tries to make Chucky’s evil understandable, relatable even. There is a sequence of events, starting with the Vietnamese worker’s sabotage and continuing through the behaviors Chucky observes from Andy and others, that explains how Chucky comes to commit such violence. But one of the main reasons Dourif’s Chucky was so terrifying was that he was just a relentless, unstoppable psychopath. By giving Chucky a reason to kill, the new movie’s arc can’t help but dilute his menace a bit.
Hilariously, Child’s Play hits theaters the same day as Toy Story 4. Has our current cultural wave of nostalgia, sequels, and commercialism complicated our relationship to toys? Child’s Play doesn’t venture too far into such thematic terrain, but it’s still nice to be reminded that for every endearing Forky, some toys still have an edge. C+