Review: 'Child's Play'

A cloud-connected devil doll wreaks havoc in this unnecessary reboot
UNCANNY KILLER: Unlike his predecessor, Chucky, Buddi is part of the internet of things—evil things, that is.

This time around, the stabby li'l toy moppet in Child's Play doesn't just mouth slogans of togetherness as he runs around with a shiv. The original 1988 Child's Play came out three years after the talking toy Teddy Ruxpin was unleashed to terrify the world. In that version, the hellion was born when a dying thug (Brad Dourif) used a voodoo ritual to escape his bullet riddled body. He goofed and ended up projecting himself into an adorable talking doll.

Scandinavian director Lars Klevberg has the new iteration of Chucky—a living "Buddi" doll, knee high, freckled and red-headed—as a little brother to Siri and Alexa. He can turn things on and off with a gesture of his finger, which glows like ET's digit.

Another new angle: this Chucky is more sinned against than sinning. The doll's good/evil switch was flipped the wrong way by an abused Vietnamese slave laborer. Chucky and his little boy keeper Andy (Gabriel Bateman) live in the slums, and this too warps the impressionable little homunculus. The castle-like Gothic apartment building in Chicago is, in this Vancouver-shot version, poor, dim and sordid. The halls look like someone left a smoke machine running. The colors are a soupy brown, though patches of tropical Mario Bava-style colors glow from reflected neon in the backgrounds.

Andy's single-mom, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), works at the shabby discount store ZedMart, 15 letters downhill from K-Mart; she has a beer-swilling loafer boyfriend. Chucky zones in on the Oedipal fury Andy feels, and is lured into rampaging because of the splatter films Andy watches with the bad kids down the hall. The gang takes in a montage of many of the ghastliest scenes in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)—yet another demonstration of the wisdom of never swiping scenes from a better movie than the one you're making.

There's been some strange critical complaints about Chucky's limits of facial expression. Yet the point is made throughout of the doll's second-rateness. Chucky was what they call 'spoilage' in the world of retail—he was returned and destined for the Dumpster because a customer complained that its eyes kept glowing red. When Karen tries to pass on this piece of salvage as a present, Andy is unimpressed: "This thing is for little kids now. It came out, like, a year ago."

Down the hall from Karen and Andy lives the mother of a friendly police detective (Brian Tyree Henry), who figures out something strange is going on, though very slowly. There's certainly a lot for him to investigate. Except for a not-very-fun battering-ram ordeal in a self-driving car controlled by Chucky, the gore crescendos are done in similar styles: two worthy victims (one a cheating husband, the other a peeping tom) fed to whirling blades.

The violence isn't as outlandish as, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and the ghastliness isn't even vivid enough to be worrisome. We viewers are not impressionable blank slates like poor Chucky. Besides, current events tend to put one in the mood for a violent puppet show. But Klevberg doesn't build this to a crescendo. For instance, he goes to lengths to establish that Andy is a reject because he's deaf in one ear; but there's no follow-through: the director doesn't establish a Wait Until Dark-style situation, where the kid loses his hearing aid and is unable to hear the tiny feet approaching.

Having played the Joker for decades, Mark Hamill is the sinister voice of Chucky. He excels at these readings; there's a tragic undertone in them. It's amusing enough that Child's Play is released the same weekend as Toy Story 4. It's even more fun that Hamill sings the Buddi theme "You Are My Buddy" over the end titles as a kind of answer to "You've Got a Friend in Me." (Whatever else fails here, Bear McCreary's witty score with toy piano and accordion works.)

One definite plus: Plaza, kind of an elongated, sour Natalie Wood, continuing in the alluring snit that's made her name. Plaza brings texture to this crazy devil-doll opus. Apparently, Plaza's Twitter handle is @evilhag. With luck, she'll be playing serious witches and wicked women for many years to come.

Child's Play
R; 90 Mins

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