The new reboot of horror classic Child’s Play deftly dodges many of the typical pitfalls of a remake, and establishes a new world of unease, complete with new emotional conflict, fears of Artificial Intelligence, and even a rather subtle dissection of an abusive relationship.
Although the 2019 edition of Child’s Play has more stakes and emotional depth than the 1988 original, the series still has to grapple with the near-farcical notion of the red haired, freckle-faced killer doll. Nevertheless, this update cleverly employs some interesting changes. A considerable departure from the original series is that the doll is no longer possessed by the soul of serial killer Charles Lee Ray, “Chucky”. The doll is now simply a highly adaptive toy with its moral compass removed by a disgruntled factory employee.
In addition to a very 21st century exploration of the uncanny world of A.I., the reboot presents a starkly different picture of young Andy Barclay, the boy who receives the cursed doll as a gift. Andy is now a smart thirteen-year-old latchkey kid, not a naive six year old, and he functions as a hero, not a victim. However, Child’s Play’s hook — the talking killer doll — is ultimately its Achilles heel. Eventually, the suspension of disbelief becomes difficult to maintain, even for a fan of the franchise. Whether you find Child’s Play terrifying or snicker-inducing will probably hinge on how firmly you agree with the character of the mother when she incredulously reiterates to Andy, “Chucky is a doll.”
The story begins as Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza), a young and broke single mother working at “ZedMart”, accidentally acquires a corrupted version of the popular “Buddi” doll for her 13 year old son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Chucky is now far more than a talking doll. He is an uncanny valley boy, accessing information uploaded from his owner’s cloud account. Whatever that information actually is, Chucky never really seems to use it. In spite of the “Buddi” doll ads touting the toy’s advanced programming, when push comes to shove, Chucky’s abilities seems relatively rudimentary. He accesses television sets to replay video clips of his crimes and audio recording technology to replay crucial conversations, but his technological capabilities are never more impressive than that of a tape recorder and an HDMI cable. This Chucky has the soul of a VCR, not a serial killer.
Almost the entire first half of the film’s 90 minutes are spent creating an emotional bond between Andy and his new doll. Director Lars Kvrenberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith actually succeed in creating sympathy for both characters. Although Andy still temporarily takes the blame for some of the doll’s actions, Chucky never intentionally frames Andy. Instead, Chucky simply presents a horrified Andy with unsolicited trophies of his murders, and that trail leads Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) to suspect Andy.
At this point, the relationship between boy and doll starts to take on the feel of a stalker film rather than a slasher film, in which the true fear comes from the villain’s unwavering fixation on our protagonist. Chucky’s motivation seems completely contingent on his idea that Andy is his best friend. All of his gruesome murders stem either from protection of Andy, or the protection of the relationship.
Eventually, this stalker-like behavior reaches an all-time high when Chucky targets Andy’s mother, and utters a line about how if he can’t be Andy’s best friend, nobody can. At this point, the terror should also be at an all-time high, but somehow, it falls flat. When the story goes from genre-specific splatter to real emotional stakes, the image of a knife-wielding doll shatters any suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, the limitations of the initial 1988 premise carry into even this cleverly-written, thoughtfully-directed reboot.
Andy is a welcome surprise. The young actor, Gabriel Bateman, does a fine job with a complex part. Andy is ultimately the hero of the film, rather than just Chucky’s victim. He has a weird, but actually touching, friendship with Chucky until the doll becomes fatally overprotective of the relationship. Rather than being a small human distraction from Chucky’s reign of terror, Andy’s hero journey drives the film.
Fans of this psycho-doll may find this film more Fatal Attraction than Friday the 13th. However, I think audiences will happily welcome this well-made, well-acted, and strangely poignant addition to the series.
Child’s Play 2019 brings a fresh take to the serial killer doll concept, with updated technological sophistication and surprising emotional connections. However, the pre-established limitations of the franchise continue to plague this reboot.