Entertainment

The Controversial 'Child's Play' Reboot Can't Recapture the Soul of the Original

child's play
Eric Milner/Orion Pictures

This story contains spoilers for the 2019 Child's Play reboot.

Chucky has always been a resilient little guy. In the first Child's Play movie, released in 1988 toward the end of the slasher movie boom, the overalls-sporting, knife-wielding doll gets shot, burned, and decapitated, his chubby face melting into a horrifying charred visage of Reagan-era consumerism-run-amok, but he just keeps fighting. From there, he went on to star in six sequels, all of them written by the series creator, Don Mancini, who came up with the lucrative concept of the killer toy when he was a film student at UCLA. Now the pint-sized anti-hero faces his latest test: Can he survive a lackluster reboot?

The Child's Play that comes to theaters in 2019, arriving as slightly less existentially unsettling counter-programming to Pixar's Toy Story 4, looks relatively straightforward at first glance, another attempt at reigniting passion for a familiar piece of intellectual property in a summer full of bloated sequels and big-budget retreads. It's directed by Norweigian filmmaker Lars Klevberg and stars Parks and Recreation eye-roller Aubrey Plaza as a single mom who brings home the latest technologically advanced "Buddi" doll as a gift for her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman). Unsurprisingly, the Buddi doll, voiced by nerd favorite Mark Hamill, goes haywire out of a twisted sense of loyalty to his owner and starts hacking people up. As slick, self-aware kitsch, it feels like it rolled right off the assembly line, outfitted with enough satirical jabs and outrageous gore effects to win over some skeptics. 

What's perhaps more interesting is that the reboot comes wrapped in layers of behind-the-scenes controversy. In the world of slasher movies, remakes and reboots are hardly new: Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm StreetThe Texas ChainsawMassacre, and Halloween have all been reanimated in recent years with varying degrees of financial and critical success. But Child's Play isn't like other horror franchises: Mancini's involvement in all the previous films is relatively unique in the genre, making this reboot something slightly more sinister than your average cash-grab. 

child's play
Eric MilneR/Orion Pictures

The origin story of how this Child's Play remake came to be is almost as complicated as Chucky's own personal journey over the years. First, there's the convoluted ownership rights issue that led to the movie's existence in the first place: As explained in this helpful Entertainment Weeklybreakdown, the remake rights for the original movie remain controlled by MGM-United Artists, which gave up the rights to the sequels back in the '80s when an Australian venture capitalist named Christopher Skase attempted to buy the studio and didn't want to be associated with the seedy horror hit.

Universal produced most of the Chucky films that followed, including 1998's more comedic fan favorite Bride of Chucky starring Jennifer Tilly, and 2017's direct-to-VOD release Curse of Chucky. In all these movies, Chucky was voiced by character actor extraordinaire Brad Douriff, most recently seen reprising his role as Doc Cochran in the Deadwood movie, and his daughter Fiona also had a main role in the two most recent Mancini-directed efforts. (Fun fact: 2004's Seed of Chucky is the only movie I'm aware of to feature appearances from cult filmmaker John Waters and rapper Redman!) It's the type of self-referential, mythology-heavy series that necessitates the creation of those big "character/actor" charts on the Wikipedia page. 

As you'd imagine, Mancini isn't super happy about the remake. The writer, who also directed the last three entries in the series and is currently developing a Chucky TV series for SYFY, declined an executive producer credit on the new movie and has been vocal about his displeasure with the project in interviews and on social media. "They came to us and asked us to have this nominal involvement in what they were doing after we had just made two movies that had done extremely well,” Mancini told EW. “So, it’s hard not to feel a little insulted by that.”

child's play
Eric Milner/Orion Pictures

So, does the new Child's Play play like an insult to Mancini's legacy? Oddly enough, the best parts of the new movie are the ones where it attempts to strike out on its own and try something new. The biggest change is that Tyler Burton Smith's script does away with the supernatural elements that define the original film, making Chucky an A.I. assisted android and explaining away his evil tendencies by having a disgruntled factory worker in Vietnam mess with his settings. That detail, along with some droll tech parody with Tim Matheson as the CEO of Kaslan Corp, the Amazon-like company behind the "Buddi" dolls, gives Klevberg's movie some much-needed bite. Similarly, Hamill excels in the role by not trying to out-crazy Douriff, who was playing a serial killer trapped in a doll in the original. The Chucky here is like a combination of HAL from 2001 and Haley Joel Osment's teddy bear friend in A.I.

The bigger problems are with the human characters. Plaza, so captivating and funny in the recent social media satire Ingrid Goes West, feels miscast here as a concerned mother, a role that doesn't quite play to her sarcastic strengths. Bateman's Andy is a decent audience surrogate, vulnerable and brave when needed, but he's saddled with a Stranger Things-like crew of quippy friends who eat up screen time. Atlanta break-out star Brian Tyree Henry is also hanging around the movie as Detective Mike Norris, played by Princess Bride actor Chris Sarandon in the original, and he does his best with some lukewarm gags and action beats. Like with many horror-comedies, the laughs don't hit hard enough, particularly in the first half, and the suspense is often undermined by the jokes.

Mancini's more outlandish, idiosyncratic vision will likely outlast this reboot. Even as the movie picks up some wild, cartoon-like energy towards the end, staging a toy store battle sequence with an army of Chucky dolls and a deadly drone straight out of Joe Dante's Small Soldiers, it can't help but feel uninspired. The sense of scale is off. The intimacy of the original is missing. The movie wants to take aim at corporate consumer culture, offering up a sly critique of our tech-obsessed times, but it ends up feeling like yet another defective product.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.