When the original Child’s Play first arrived in theaters in 1988, it was downright scary. A talking doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer going on a murder spree is a pretty messed up idea for a horror movie, at least in the 1980s. In 2019, the idea seems dated and a little silly, even as the original franchise keeps chugging along in the form of direct-to-DVD movies of varying quality and a TV series in development at Syfy. The new reboot of the first film, though, isn’t trying to be the same kind of movie. There are no possessed dolls to be found. Instead, the maniacal Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) is a malfunctioning piece of artificial intelligence inside of a cutting edge smart toy. Does that change make this modern spin on Child’s Play worth your time, though?
It does, at least eventually. Child’s Play centers on Andy (Gabriel Bateman), a young teenager with a hearing impairment who has just moved to a new neighborhood with his mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) and is having trouble making friends. To help out on that front, mom gifts him a Buddi doll, a smart toy with incredibly impressive artificial intelligence that learns and retains knowledge. What Karen doesn’t realize is that the safety protocols on this particular Buddi doll have been turned off and bad things are going to happen as a result.
By this point, chances are you’ve seen in the trailers that the new Chucky doll controls other in-home smart devices and uses them to carry out some of his killings. Unfortunately, it takes way too long for the movie to realize that this is when Chucky–and the film as a whole–are at its best. The first half of the movie, by comparison, seems slow and plodding as you wait for what you know is bound to happen.
There are a handful of scary moments in the first half of the movie, but they feel hollow given how the film opens with a very exposition-heavy commercial for the Buddi doll that talks about all of the incredible things it can do. Knowing that Chucky can interface with appliances, tools, and more made me want to see that sort of thing in action, only to instead watch the doll choke a cat and wave a knife around for 45 minutes.
Once the second half of the movie kicks in and Chucky comes into his full power, the movie becomes a lot more fun as you watch him wreak havoc by controlling everything from a thermostat to a self-driving car. It’s at this point that Child’s Play realizes its full potential as both a horror movie and a commentary on the glut of smart devices that populate modern lives.
That’s what makes this new take on Child’s Play such a scary endeavor. It feels realistic in a way the original franchise never did. No, dolls aren’t walking around killing everyone, but given that everything from TV to appliances to lawn mowers can be smart devices now, it seems entirely possible that something could go horrifically wrong and put the machines in charge. It’s the same reason the Terminator franchise remains so intriguing over 30 years after the first film debuted.
I wish Child’s Play had dedicated more time to that side of the story. I also wish it hadn’t given away so many of its death scenes in various trailers. Practically every notable death is in the movie’s marketing, save for a big–and truly awesome–set piece toward the end of the film. That said, each of the deaths is more graphic than what was seen in the trailers. Child’s Play more than earns its R-rating.
As for the cast, practically everybody easily handles the roles they were given. Plaza’s part as a single mom trying to earn enough to support her son and keep him happy is a new role for the actress, but one she does well with. Bryan Tyree Henry is very entertaining as Detective Mike Norris, whose mother lives next door to Karen and Andy. He befriends the young man, not realizing the murders he’s investigating are being committed by a toy.
The movie’s real standouts, though, are Hamill and Bateman. Hamill’s innocent Chucky voice is bone-chilling, given everything that’s unfolding. It’s a massive change from the deranged voice given to Chucky by Brad Dourif in the original franchise. It’s a welcome one, though, enhancing the maniacal doll’s new motivation. He’s not a deranged killer; he’s just a piece of technology that’s working incorrectly.
Bateman, meanwhile, is incredibly believable as Andy, a kid just looking for his place in the world and a friend to stick by his side, whether it’s a doll like Chucky or the kids down the hall. He also handles the horror aspects of the movie well, which is no surprise given his previous credits in 2014’s Annabelle and 2016’s Lights Out.
All told, Child’s Play is decent but flawed. While it includes some truly gut-wrenching horror moments and a few jump scares, that it takes too long to fully embrace what it is–a techno-slasher–is disappointing. With the table set, though, hopefully, it will be received well enough to get a sequel that doesn’t waste any time in unleashing Chucky’s full potential.