Well made, neat story with a great cast and tonnes of both suspense and violence. But it could have been all of those things if it had been an original story, rather than a modern reboot.
The day after I went to see Child’s Play 2019, a few people asked me what I thought of it, and I found myself struggling to sum it up. It’s easy to say lots of positive things about it, but they are all overshadowed with a great big “but…”
The positives are easy to name, starting with some actual names: Aubrey Plaza and Mark Hamill. Aubrey Plaza, who many know and love from Parks and Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Legion, etc., is a down-to-Earth single mother in Child’s Play, struggling to juggle her love life, raising her son and paying the bills. She brings home a Buddi doll for her son, Andy, as an early birthday present; not knowing that its AI programming has had its rules messed with by a disgruntled factory worker. Plaza’s role is like many standard mothers in contemporary films, but she gives the part plenty of character, without it being a repeat of any of the previous personalities she’s portrayed. The doll, which (once unpacked) calls itself Chucky, has the voice of Mark Hamill; not the sincere/heroic voice of Luke Skywalker, nor the sneering, exaggerated voice of the Joker, but something both slightly childlike and slightly off-balance. He gives Chucky life, while still retaining a degree of the robotic. I liked Hamill’s contribution a lot.
Another positive: simply put, Child’s Play is very well made. The lighting and cinematography give it a nice eighties throwback feel; the film successfully demonstrates (again) that modern content can work in the style many have thought belonged in the past. Slashers are not dead yet. The use of practical effects really helps with this, making what we see on the screen feel tangible, as well as feeling just a little bit retro. Any more CGI and I might have found myself noticing the lines between real and fake, and there was so much that was plausible about the Buddi toy functionality that it wasn’t worth the risk.
I’ve called it a “slasher”, but I must say I found Child’s Play to be a lot tenser – and even scary, at times – than I found old slashers to be. Bear McReary’s tense music made my arms goose-pimple and general set-up for the violent scenes was so effective that at least twice I had to force myself to look. Old slashers were known for being formulaic and having somewhat cheesy or camp humor. Director Lars Klevberg played with the formulas and tropes in Child’s Play, so that there were some scenes when I thought I could see what was going to happen, but he made me wait, or turned it around. It also didn’t have as much humor as most eighties slashers: there were some sarcastic jabs at corporations, and some cringey awkward scenes; but overall, Child’s Play was more fun than funny, which sat comfortably alongside the violence.
And oh yes, it’s violent. Chucky likes to stab, when he thinks it will satisfy the needs of his “best friend”, though he also finds other more creative ways to put Andy’s apparent oppressors in their places. This includes the use of a circular saw and even a lawnmower. Most of the violence isn’t shown explicitly on screen, beyond some simple cuts; but we see plenty of the after-effects, including a limb flying through the air and… well, I’m not going to give it all away, but suffice it to say the visuals do bring the 15 certificate very close to the 18 cert boundary in my opinion. Most of the injury effects are – again – very well done; although some are enjoyably extreme, none of it is laughable.
Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mates are simply drawn characters, though they play their parts in the story well. As simple characters, they don’t call for terribly sophisticated acting, but that’s OK: this is about excitement, fear, and violence, not characters. Bateman’s role in American Gothic was much more interesting, and he met the challenge with ease in that show. I do look forward to seeing how his career will develop, now he’s had essentially a lead part, but this was not a part that demonstrated much of his talent.
The Chucky character (though it was a doll, it was certainly a character) was interestingly written. We’ve seen androids and robotic dolls on screen on and off over the years (from Westworld to Black Mirror’s Ashley O), but this one came across more like a psychotic child than a programmed artificial intelligence. It was learning dos and don’ts as a child does; and misinterpreting instructions, taking things too literally as many autistic children do: that made me rather uncomfortable. It’s interesting too that I found more similarity between this Chucky and David in A.I. than I did between this Chucky and the old one, from 1988.
And this brings me to the big problem with the film, which is in the background all the time as we watch. No matter how good the cast or production are, no matter how engaged with the action and the atmosphere we are, it is still inevitable that this Child’s Play is compared to Tom Holland’s original Child’s Play. Right from the start, the key difference is introduced: Chucky is a doll with AI capabilities which have its limitations removed, causing it to act with no boundaries, yet still with the same objectives; in the original film, it was a doll possessed by the spirit of a dead convict. At every scene from there onwards, I kept spotting differences and similarities and commenting to myself: “OK, they’ve got that,” or “well that’s different,” or “that doesn’t look right”. It could have been a perfectly good/nasty modern slasher if it was unique, with a different name, and a different doll. It was very effective, but the constant comparison in the back of my mind got in the way of enjoying Child’s Play 2019 as a new film in its own right: I wish I could have watched it without knowing an earlier version existed.
The other issue for me is that this is yet another horror story of “technology gone wrong”. By 2019, shouldn’t we have gotten over Luddite fears? There are so many films with this theme that even if Child’s Play hadn’t been a reboot, it would still have been unoriginal: the idea of a dead killer possessing a doll (not to mention making it talk and stab) was much more original.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I enjoyed Child’s Play but it didn’t escape the shadow of its predecessor. It was entertaining and I have no problem recommending it for a night out; but not quite enough that it would be worth paying for a babysitter. And think carefully before taking your fifteen-year-old!