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Looking at the entire scope of his history on the big screen, Chucky has a very different legacy than basically any other horror icon. In most cases, particularly with characters created in the 1970s and 1980s, the pattern has maintained that while the villains/killers/monsters are eternally held in high esteem as powerful nightmare-inducers, their movies on the whole typically aren’t all that great. For cinema’s favorite murderous doll, however, the exact opposite has long been true.
Particularly because of his diminutive stature, and in spite of his intensely bloody past, Chucky has been written off by many movie-goers as one of the sillier horror icons… and yet he is one of the few kings of the genre that has a franchise stacked with mostly quality material. Child’s Play 3 isn’t very good, and both Bride Of Chucky and Seed Of Chucky require a certain amount of audience leniency given their tonal choices, but still the serial killer-possessed toy has a better batting average overall than, say, Freddy, Jason, or Michael.
This legacy has allowed Chucky to be a consistent pop culture presence for decades, his path guided by the hand of creator Don Mancini – but now things are changing a bit in 2019. Without Mancini’s input, a reboot of Child’s Play has been created, and in doing so the story and central villain have been updated to reflect our current technology/smart home-obsessed world. And while this may sound like epically bad development strategy, here’s the killer surprise: it’s actually pretty damn fun and entertaining.
Nixing all magical spells from the narrative, director Lars Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith introduce the new generation of Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) as a special interface product from fictional conglomerate Kaslan Corp – which has proliferated its proprietary software into basically every consumer market there is. He is part of a line of Buddi dolls that are designed to interact with kids and control in-home technologies, but at the same time he isn’t quite like the others of his kind. Due to some tampering on the production line involving his safeguards, Chucky is a bit… glitch-y.
It’s because he doesn’t function quite right that he winds up in the possession of Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza), who works the customer service desk at a big-box store. When the Buddi doll is returned because it’s seen as defective, Karen successfully steals it and gives it as a gift to her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) – who is an introvert and has failed to make any friends since moving to their new apartment. It takes some adjustment, but slowly Andy and Chucky become close, and eventually practically inseparable.
Things are good for a minute, as Chucky’s weirdness even manages to get the attention of some neighborhood kids (Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio) who wind up befriending Andy, but then things start to go horrifically wrong. The combination of dysfunctional safeguards, imperfect information processing, and an intense desire to make Andy happy serves to transform the Buddi doll into a literal killing machine that must be stopped before it’s too late.
The new Child’s Play isn’t exactly deep (despite its attempts at commentary about our computer-obsessed lives), and it does drag a bit in places – but when it works it works, and by the end of its 90 minute runtime you feel sufficiently entertained. It’s a movie that gets by on some gnarly, creative kill sequences, a mean-spirited-yet-clever sense of humor, and a surprisingly great Mark Hamill performance, and all that winds up being enough to make it passable.
One of the great joys delivered by this franchise has always been the contrast between Chucky’s “cute” appearance and the gruesomeness of his actions, and while that’s lessened to a degree in this iteration (this Chucky design is waaaaaaaay more creepy than cute), it still manages to fully deliver on the latter half of the equation. Some of the setups are more basic – with the doll making skilled use of landscaping equipment and Christmas lights – others are more complex – a with smart technology transforming a fairly standard boiler room into a house of horrors – but it all succeeds in satisfying the horror fan bloodlust.
Taking that a step further, this is a movie that most definitely knows the audience to which it’s playing, and it takes some big swings in aims of satisfying that base. Some of it is a bit too much, and what is clearly going for weird gets read as stupid instead, but there are moments that wind up clicking in amazing ways – and if you have the proper sensibilities the film will leave you with a big smile on your face. If you don’t find something darkly humorous about a kid sitting down for a dinner with a cop and his mother while a present-wrapped severed head sits on an adjoining table, Child’s Play probably isn’t for you; but those who can see the funny should give it a shot.
It helps that this is a cast stacked with talent, with Brian Tyree Henry joining the aforementioned Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Bateman in delivering charismatic performances, but Mark Hamill is particularly deserving of praise as a standout. He’s very much doing his own thing with the role (smartly not trying to do any kind of Brad Dourif-esque interpretation), and what he particularly delivers well is both Chucky’s maturation and escalating menace. He may look particularly off-putting from the very start, but there is a legitimately sweet innocence that he projects in his early days with Andy – and Hamill slowly goes from there to a chilling place as the story progresses and Chucky takes in more of the world around him.
Being a fan of this franchise, there was a part of me that went into seeing the new Child’s Play with a chip on my shoulder – namely because of the production’s negative relationship with Don Mancini, and the project proceeding without his involvement or blessing. By the time the ridiculous third act action began with blood shooting into the face of an adolescent blonde girl, though, I had to put those feelings aside and admit that I was having fun with the cinematic experience. It’s not novel, but it is a fun spin on the familiar that will satisfy horror fans desiring some big screen insanity.