'Child's Play' Review: Are You Ready To Sympathize With A Murder Doll?
Few franchises walk the beloved-yet-cheesy line better than Child’s Play. The original movie from 1988 was perfectly timed to trigger the fascination of my generation. I didn’t watch when it came out — after all, I was basically the same age as the young protagonist of the film, Alex Barclay, and certainly wasn’t up for watching a serial killing doll — but the knowledge that there was such a movie, and such a doll, still permeated my childish awareness. In daycare, my friend had a “My Buddy” doll that I always looked at with suspicion, expecting it to rise up at any moment and do… well, something unspeakable. I didn’t know what, but it would be bad. Fast-forward to sometime in the mid-nineties, when I finally started renting the Chucky movies to satisfy years of nagging curiosity, and I fell in love. As an almost teenager, it was perfect — bloody enough to make me feel mature, yet lampooning those objects of kid-hood I too could verify were subversively terrifying.
The point is, there was something about the original Child’s Play that was always lightning in a bottle for me. But even as much as I grew more and more enamored with the slasher flicks of the 70s and 80s, it was one films that I never really revisited — until this week. I decided to rewatch it, in preparation for the reboot starring Aubrey Plaza and Mark Hamill, and… well, I’d forgotten just how dumb it is. The franchise took a turn, as it became more of a satire focusing on the character of Chucky — his Seed, his Bride, his Curse, his Whatever. And that’s what stuck most in my head. I’d forgotten just how basic his origins were, that doll infused with the spirit of a dead psychopath, hell-bent on claiming the only body he’s compatible with: that of the sweet, innocent six-year-old boy who loved him. Brad Dourif as Chucky was electrifying, but there was no emotional nuance to the character — there was nothing but anger and insanity. It had the depth and logic of a Saturday morning cartoon, but with the blood and language of a Midnight movie. And that was OK! It was fun, and cocaine is a helluva drug, and I love the ’80s-ishness of it all! But by the time the credits rolled, I realized that while the franchise is still something special for all that it represented in my life — well, I certainly couldn’t begrudge it getting a new coat of paint.
Which is why I walked into theater last night more receptive to the reboot than I’d been when I first saw the trailer. And I walked out pretty happy overall. Oh sure, it trades one nonsense premise for another that it imperfectly explores, and it features some dynamite actors who could have been given more to work with, and it mashes in healthy dollops of both Terminator and Stranger Things to weird effect. But I liked it. And more than that, I liked this new Chucky. Like, really liked him. Like, kinda wanted to cry I felt so bad for him at times.
And that, I suspect, will be the barrier for entry a lot of you face. If you prefer your murder dolls uncomplicated, this ain’t the ride for you. But if you’re open to a Chucky that delivers his violence with a heap of pathos, then give this version a shot. Because while is isn’t quite the stab-happy chucklefest you might be used to (though it gets there in the end), all that sympathy does serve a purpose: it ratchets up the tension, and the dread. Turns out, there’s a big different between a killer doll that’s always been evil, and one that learns to be evil… through his own twisted love. Remember how in Toy Story, all the toys thought Woody tried to murder Buzz Lightyear in a fit of jealousy? Imagine if that’s actually how the movie played out, and Woody went after his boy Andy’s whole family too.
Gone is the whole possession premise, and in its place is a hi-tech interconnected smart life run from your very own “Buddi” doll. Imagine Google Nest, Alexa, Uber, and the entire pile of products and apps that have upgraded our lives, only it’s all combined under one company. Oh who am I kidding, you don’t even have to imagine it, we’re basically there already. Anywhoodle, that company introduces a doll-like companion that connects to all of those platforms and services, while also being a playmate, a babysitter, and a baby monitor to boot. No, it’s not a very good idea. Yes, it is in fact a terrible idea, and one of the weaknesses of this reboot is not exploring why exactly any person would put all that power in a doll that imprints on their kids rather than keeping it on their smart phone where it’s imprinted on them instead, but that’s just me being picky. The movie starts with a Buddi assembly line, where one worker is busted for being slow on the job. So he sticks it to the man but disabling all the safety protocols on the last Buddi he’s programming… then he commits suicide. And of course, long story short, that specific Buddi doll winds up in the Barclay household, where single mom Karen (Plaza) is trying to get her hearing-impaired teenage son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) to come out of his shell a little bit. They’ve just recently moved, and he doesn’t have any friends yet — so this strange little malfunctioning Buddi, which at first seemed like a funny joke, ends up becoming a genuine companion to Andy. Through “Chucky” (as the doll dubs itself), Andy begins to meet the neighboring kids (after all, what teen doesn’t wanna teach a doll to recite a litany of curse words?) — but it’s through Andy’s avoidance of Karen’s dickhead boyfriend that he first encounters Detective Mike, played by Brian Tyree Henry,
And look, the movie hinges on Andy’s relationship with Chucky for obvious reasons. The lengths Chucky will go to protect Andy and make him happy, the lengths Andy will go to cover up Chucky’s misdeeds, and their mutual dawning awareness that any friendship where one party murders for the other, and the other party locks the first one up in closets to keep them from murdering, is toxic indeed — that’s the story’s arc. Chucky’s confusion about why Andy is growing distant, or upset, is genuinely upsetting, while Andy’s determination to Old Yeller his best friend is heartbreaking. But one of the surprise delights of the movie is Andy’s interactions with the other characters in the film. Plaza is predictably sarcastic, but impressively loving, as Karen, but it’s Henry who steals the show with his friendly neighborhood cop routine. He’s playfully put-upon when he deals with his mother, who lives down the hall from the Barclays, and he’s absolutely charming with Andy himself. The original film put all of the focus on the mother and the detective — but made both blatantly two-dimensional so nothing could pull focus of Chucky. Here, everyone gets to shine, and it feels like an indie ensemble movie a lot of the time. Some kind of twisted dark comedy, maybe. Except for the murders, which are plenty outrageous, definitely over-the-top, impressively disgusting and bloody and… well, also pretty funny.
This Chucky may not be THAT Chucky, but he does go THAT crazy sometimes (and his character design is basically just as disturbing). Mark Hamill digs deep into the saccharine menace of this tiny terror and makes it his own. This isn’t blank, abject rage — it’s love and betrayal and confusion, all wrapped up in a package that literally can’t help itself. He was made by humans, he was sabotaged by humans, he’s learned all he knows by observing and misunderstanding humans — he is the robot uprising, hurting us to serve us. And yeah, he’s REALLY CREEPY:
I listened to "The Buddi Song"🎶 50+ times in the days before I recorded it. Now it's stuck in my head FOREVER. See @ChildsPlayMovie 🔪 in theaters everywhere today & please stay all the way through the end-credits so it can be stuck in yours! Tickets here https://t.co/r1xeIlTQtA pic.twitter.com/0aM2ocmazU— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) June 21, 2019
(Full disclosure: my husband has been singing this to me in his best creepy kid voice since we left the theater, and I’m not saying I’m going to divorce him but I am saying I’m pretty sure this is peak “irreconcilable differences”…)
It all leads up to an entertaining climax that leans into the potential of a doll that can control all the electronics… but it doesn’t go overboard. There’s still room for sequels that further explore the technological side of this terror. Because Chucky isn’t just a killer’s soul — he’s a computer program. Entertainment Weekly published an insightful explainer on Child’s Play franchise, and why this reboot is actually completely separate from the rest of the greater Chucky franchise, which I highly recommend if you’re interested. But suffice it to say, this Child’s Play doesn’t overwrite what you love. That Chucky, and all those sequels, are still alive in the marketplace. It’s just that this one exists in addition to them, and can go off and spawn its own franchise, and maybe they can all co-exist. I think I’d like to see that, actually. Because for once, it’d be nice to have my childhood nostalgia and my modern sensibilities appeased at the same time, thank you very much.
Header Image Source: Orion Pictures