2019, R, 90 min. Directed by Lars Klevberg. Voice by Mark Hamill. Starring Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Beatrice Kitsos, Ty Consiglio, Marlon Kazadi.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 28, 2019
There are horror icons. Freddy, Jason, Michael, Norman, Leatherface. The members of the terror elite who have instant name recognition, even in non-horror fans. Yet below them is a lesser pantheon, consisting of the likes of Pinhead and Pumpkinhead and the Tall Man and, of course, Chucky. The pint-sized villain of the Child's Play series has had enough box office momentum to sustain seven films over 20 years; and so, inevitably, here comes the new style remake.
Gone is series creator Don Mancini; gone too is Brad Dourif, the voice of Chucky throughout the franchise (they're off doing their own TV series, continuing from the original cycle) and so the story does a solid reboot. Chucky the Good Guys doll is now Chucky the Buddi electronic toy: Same basic design, but rather than being infested and animated by the spirit of a serial killer, he's given evil motivation through a rogue AI. That's explained in an awkward – and quite possibly a little racist – opening sequence in which a disgruntled employee in a Vietnamese sweatshop turns off his safety protocols. By the time he gets to lonely American kid Andy (Bateman), this particular miniature menace has already been returned to the store by one family – the smartest people in the film – for malfunctioning. So Andy's mom Karen (Plaza, valiantly trying to give the action some life and failing) basically blackmails her boss into letting her keep the damaged stock as a birthday present for her boy.
Bad idea. Buddis aren't simply a doll; they're also a walking, talking Alexa, a learning AI that can also control all your electronics and bonds with its owner. Once this malfunctioning mannequin (voiced by Mark Hamill) locks on to Andy, he'll do anything for his friend. Anything (stares pointedly at carving knife).
When in one of the first acts a major, supposedly sympathetic character commits extortion, that's a bad sign. In fact, it's an indicator of where this remake is going. None of this is Chucky's fault. Between that factory worker, and the fact that Andy is kind of a jerk, he ends up with some bad wiring. That decision to make Chucky a victim of society never really works. Frankenstein's benighted monster, he ain't.
Aimed squarely at the late-night Friday night crowd, in its own right Child's Play 2019 is unexceptional. It's got a few laughs and a few decent kills, a couple of them even moderately innovative; but Andy works out Chucky is alive early in the bloody proceedings and starts covering up his crimes, while still supposedly being the likable one. Not only that, but he drags in his own Scooby Gang – Falyn (Kitsos), Pugg (Consiglio), and Omar (Kazadi) – in some misguided attempt to evoke Stranger Things. Any commentary on the dangers of smart electronics, constant digital surveillance seems like a haphazard afterthought. Similarly, any critique of end-stage capitalism and must-have toy culture was done better by Jingle All the Way. Worst of all, its mix of horror and comedy never walks the tightrope of shrieking absurdism that the originals did at their peak (and it's easy to forget that they started as a straight horror franchise). Instead, it ends up with the off-putting mean-spiritedness of late-era Charles Band, the king of 2000s straight-to-video exploitation.
Where does this Child's Play end up in the roster of remakes nobody asked for? While not as obnoxiously and needlessly revisionist as last year's vile Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, it'll kill an hour and a few brain cells for anyone that doesn't know the original, and irritate fans of Mancini's chilling original. For them, this Chucky can go straight on the same recycling pile as that knock-off RoboCop we all agreed never to talk about again.