Remakes often get a bad rap even before they’re released, but while many end up proving the naysayers right there are just as many remakes that are every bit as good if not better than the original. This isn’t news to horror fans as we’ve long enjoyed the pure glory of remakes like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), The Blob (1988), Thirteen Ghosts (2001), The Ring (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), House of Wax (2005), Friday the 13th (2009), The Crazies (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), Evil Dead (2013), Suspiria (2018), and many more.
The new Child’s Play, unfortunately, is not one of the good guys.
Andy (Gabriel Bateman) and his mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) have recently moved to an apartment in a lesser part of the city, and while she struggles through the dull days of her retail job Andy deals with other kinds of stress. He’s lonely, he misses his father, and he’s no fan of his mom’s new boyfriend Shane (David Lewis). Looking for any opportunity to cheer him up, Andy’s mom gets him a malfunctioning Buddi doll on the cheap that a customer had returned, and the gift seems to do the trick. Andy and Chucky — the doll names itself after ignoring Andy’s attempt to name it Han Solo — become fast friends, and Chucky’s lack of coding inhibition sees its foul language and behavior attract more friends for the lonely boy. Soon, though, the doll is taking offense at any threat to his best friend Andy, and the blood starts flowing.
The ideal remake will either make some drastic improvements — see the crazy gore and visuals in the first few films from Robert Zemeckis’ Dark Castle Entertainment — or find a different way to tell a similar story like both The Thing and The Fly. Making changes to the story, characters, and/or structure is preferred as it gives the new film its own purpose and voice, but simply removing elements isn’t enough. Something equally (or more) compelling needs to take their place, and that’s where Child’s Play suffers the most. It removes everything that worked well in the original without adding anything of note in its place.
Tyler Burton Smith‘s script (his first credited feature) swaps out the original film’s voodoo-inspired possession — a serial killer is mortally wounded in a shootout with police and transfers his soul into a doll using voodoo magic — and replaces it with a cautionary tale of technology gone awry. So far so good as advancements in tech are often terrifying and ready made to exploit our fears, but the details here leave much to be desired. Chucky’s made “evil” by a sweatshop factory worker in Vietnam who rebels against his boss’ threat of tossing him back into the street by altering the doll’s coding and turning off its restrictions for language, violence, and badassery. Sure it’s less “silly” than a supernatural explanation, but it also leaves us with a Chucky devoid of personality. He’s just a doll without social barriers who suddenly leans malicious just because he can. That’s it.
The decision carries over into the voice performance as well, and that too results in disappointment. Mark Hamill is a solid voice performer and does good work here, but without a distinction between the doll and its bad personality — ie the original’s high-pitched doll voice vs Brad Dourif’s angry and menacing Charles Lee Ray — he has little room to truly flex. It’s his voice as the generic toy, and it’s that same voice (with occasional whispering) as the threat. The original’s playfulness, something that Dourif’s voice-work really leaned into, is also gone. Similarly, while a big chunk of the original’s terror and awe came from seeing the previously immobile doll suddenly spring to pissed off life we’re robbed of that transition here. Worse, the characters are too. The toy is designed to walk around, grip things, and physically affect its surroundings, and since it’s doing that from the beginning it’s uninteresting when it continues doing so.
And speaking of Chucky, let’s all just admit that his new look is a shoddy attempt at a facelift that earns nothing but laughs. The animatronics get some noticeable assists from CG, but the design is still as drab as they come. The original’s changing visage could go from legit innocence to terrifying insanity, but here we’re stuck with eyes that glow red when he’s angry or planning some form of mayhem. (Don’t worry, though, if you miss the color change… the score is there to alert you of every change in attitude and expression.)
The script’s turn towards tech does allow for some intriguing possibilities as far as a commentary on our willingness to hand over control of our lives to artificial intelligence, but even there not nearly enough is done with the concept. The Buddi doll is marketed as an Amazon Alexa-like hub for all of your home’s tech needs, but what adult would hand control of electronics access, thermostats, security, and more over to their kid’s toy? Who’s going to put a Buddi on the shelf to talk to like an Echo? That silliness aside, the idea of Chucky having control over it all is barely even followed through on, and while no one’s asking for some Demon Seed-like shenanigans there’s a lot of room to play that’s never even attempted. It builds to a department store sequence that promises absolute carnage with a room filled with Buddi dolls, but instead of letting them cut loose on the crowd we get a pair of drones. Meh.
There are some dumb beats here — a pervy building maintenance guy spies on naked women via cameras in the apartments but he also has one on an old woman’s dinner table strictly so a character can witness a certain scene? a guy takes down his house’s exterior Christmas lights while they’re still plugged in? — but for the most part the story and script move with an engaging enough urgency. Director Lars Klevberg follows up his as-yet unreleased Polaroid (2019) here and shows a capable eye for capturing action and establishing the geography of a scene, and the film’s not shy with the red stuff thanks to a pair of kills involving a circular saw and a garden tiller. Performances are never bad, but they are fairly bland from top to bottom. As great as it is seeing Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry in a horror flick they’re given so little to do aside from taking turns moving the story an inch or two at a time. Bateman is convincing early on, but that starts to fade as the script has him and his iffy friends acting like anyone but kids.
Child’s Play earns points for not sticking slavishly to the original film, but it fails to find its own footing and voice in the process.