CHILD’S PLAY (2019) Review
There’s a strange, transfixing air to be found in Lars Klevberg’s modern day reboot of the 1988 CHILD’S PLAY. While the original series has, of all things, created its own universe — captained by writer/director Don Mancini, who currently has plans to add a TV mini-series to the franchise’s catalogue — that has fully transferred into the outrageous, the first original entry directed by Tom Holland was more or less a thriller with a supernatural bent. Outside of its aged (yet still efficient) effects and the generally ludicrous idea of a 3 ft. murder doll, the original CHILD’S PLAY was rather serious. In this reboot, Klevberg, working with screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith, leans more into the franchise’s natural ridiculousness pulling the story of a boy and his murder doll into something close to Spielbergian territory.
With a quick and violent origin for the little robot Buddi doll that could, literally programmed to kill by a disgruntled factory line worker, the film once more follows the young Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) and his young mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza) as they move to a new city. In typical new kid fashion, Andy struggles to find friends (outside of Brian Tyree Henry’s terrible joke-telling next door neighbor cop) which doesn’t help distract him from the jerk (David Lewis) that his mom always seems to attract. Sensing her son’s loneliness and with a little bit of screenwriter magic, Karen soon gets her hands on the haphazardly programmed Buddi (voiced by a game Mark Hamill) that will soon turn their world into a violent nightmare.
But rather than repeating the original’s more slow burn approach of “is this doll REALLY killing people?”, Smith instead focuses on the actual initial relationship between Andy and the at first, loving Buddi, who of course, obsessively becomes violently protective of his best friend. Created through a mix of shoddy CGI and much more interesting practical effects, this new age Chucky leans more towards a tragic character than the 1984 version, thanks in part to Smith’s genuine interest in looking at a doll who feels wronged by his owner and an at times, genuinely investing vocal performance from Mr. Hamill, who leans more towards naïve and violently obsessed love than Brad Dourif’s straight up nasty and con-man like interpretation. While this isn’t the first time a film has centered around a relationship plagued by obsession turned violent, for a remake of an 80’s slasher film, it makes for an interesting detour as there’s much more of a connection between Andy and Buddi in this version, in a way harking back to the original’s slow burn but this time posing the question now as “just WHEN will this doll who wants to be loved take it too far?”. Around this tale of a best friend scorned, Klevberg’s film takes on an almost bedtime story like quality, backed by production design that interestingly edges towards an exaggerated and cartoonish world framed colorfully by cinematographer Brendan Uegama, capturing the newness and fear that any single child coming to a new and unknown city would view their new surroundings.
That being said, the actual characters that inhabit this interesting take on CHILD’S PLAY’s world are pretty thin. Andy, played with enough aw shucks charm by Mr. Bateman, is easy to root for but only because it’s obvious that he’s the main kid of the film with the writer adding on an unnecessary hearing impairment that really doesn’t add anything to the story other than representation (which isn’t bad, but feels kind of thrown on here). Elsewhere, the film pokes and prods at the intricacies of the lifestyle of a young mother raising a kid on her own, but outside of Ms. Plaza’s natural frazzled energy the relationship between Karen and Andy seems sparse. Indeed, where the “heart” of this film can be found is in Andy and Chucky’s rollercoaster relationship. Klevberg and Smith have their moments of displaying the unknowable connection between a kid and his inanimate object of choice but CHILD’S PLAY, at multiple times throughout, seemingly remembers it’s a remake of a slasher film and quickly shutters from relationship building to rather lackluster scenes of the jealous Buddi offing people he deems dangerous to Andy. While the sense of macabre fun can still be felt in Chucky’s increasingly ridiculous murders, Klevberg seems to pull back at going full out bonkers with the blood and gore here, especially in a disappointing finale that sets up an army of murderous robot dolls vs a trapped group of aggressive toy shoppers that just devolves into a series of quick cuts and bad CGI blood.
Even as it strives to grasp that magic of Spielberg in the idea of kids facing off against evil that seems to evade the adults in their lives, CHILD’S PLAY is simply a bit too scattered pacing wise for any genuine whimsy to arise. Even as he does eventually surround Andy with a group of other precocious (if much more annoying) youngsters to fight off a jealous evil doll and his eventual army of cloud-connected animatronics, the Spielberg reaches never organically catch. While it is nice to see Klevberg and Smith develop a remake that changes the tone of the original, there’s simply too much light weight here in the characters and their relationships. Intentionally or not, this CHILD’S PLAY is focused less on scaring you and moreso on creating a light and (barring all the gore and cursing) kid-friendly tale of the tragedy of a jealous doll.