There are film reboots, and there are film remakes. A “remake,” theoretically would involve the adapting of a well-known story—one for which there is fondness, or why would we be doing it—into a newly shined version, ready to be consumed by the modern audience. It would keep the spirit and basic structure of the original intact, while adding a new coat of polish. You could ask “why bother doing it at all?”, and the answer would be the same for any remake: Because it might make an easy profit, and because audiences don’t award original ideas.
The new version of Child’s Play isn’t that. This is a pure “reboot,” and the fact that it’s difficult to evaluate against the franchise as a whole is a direct result. It has a few things in common with the original 1988 Child’s Play, sure. Like the following:
— It has a killer doll named “Chucky” in it.
— It’s a quasi-slasher film.
And that’s pretty much it. Essentially everything else that typified the Child’s Play series, and its intricate mythology from shepherding writer-director Don Mancini, has been abandoned here in favor of a “modernized” story that is attempting to make the same kind of garden-variety “we’re all too dependent on modern technology and social media” statement that has been made across the science fiction genre ad nauseum for the past decade. This Child’s Play is attempting to be both a retro slasher and some kind of banal piece of social commentary at the same time. The first, it mostly succeeds at. The latter, it doesn’t have time to even attempt in earnest.
Make no mistake, though: The biggest problem here is the core of the decision to reimagine the fabric of what Chucky is. In the 1988 original, he’s a child’s toy, a “Good Guy Doll” that ends up possessed by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray, imbuing the pint-sized terror with a foul mouth, short temper, inhuman cunning and a desire to possess and destroy. Here, on the other hand, the Chucky doll has no need to play the “I’m only an inanimate object” hiding game—he’s a top-of-the-line, AI-driven robot companion and Google Home satire object, not evil by nature but by random, stupid chance. As so many internet dwellers have already observed, the plot to this Child’s Play was uttered almost in full back in The Simpsons’ 1992 Halloween special, regarding a murderous Krusty doll: “Ah, here’s your problem: Someone set this thing to evil!”
And really, think about the implications of that decision. Does it not automatically shrink the very stature, the presence of a film character to imply they’re so easily created as being the result of a disgruntled technician hitting a few strokes of a keyboard? The Chucky portrayed by Brad Dourif in every other entry of the original film series became an iconic character not because of how he looked or what he did, but because Dourif was free to imbue him with the unique personality of one of film’s more unhinged psychopaths. The implication that any and every Buddi doll could be made into a killer in the new Child’s Play universe via mere computer glitches and exposure to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 only serves to cheapen the basic premise. Indeed, this Chucky ends up as less of a smirking menace, and more of a pitiable digital ingenue.
None of this is the fault of Mark Hamill, who provides the voice of this new Chucky, doing the best he can in a committed performance that is oddly calculated to draw sympathy for a being you already know from the beginning is going to become a slasher villain—indeed, it’s why you’re there at the theater, to see him kill people. It’s not Hamill’s fault he’s been assigned to portray a less interesting version of the character, one who isn’t allowed to show any personality of his own until the third act of the film. Brad Dourif got to be Charles Lee Ray in every instance of contorting Chucky’s little face—Hamill, on the other hand, has to portray a confused and largely childlike A.I. through the majority of the film’s 90 minutes, until he finally gets to loosen up just as the film is reaching its sadly hurried conclusion.
Nor is the doll itself really able to compare to the Chucky of yore. Filmmakers on movies like the Child’s Play reboot now know that they’re expected to make a lot of noise about their fondness and preference for “practical effects,” because that’s what the horror geeks in the audience want to hear, but in the end, CGI will almost invariably be a crutch in modern horror because it’s just so much easier. That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of animatronic doll in this film, but it’s difficult to compare it even against the pioneering animatronics work that is on display in the 1988 original or 1990 sequel, both of which are far more detailed and intricate in the level of emotion, detail and subtlety they’re able to display in Chucky’s face—no big surprise, given that it took three men alone to operate Chucky’s face in the original. The new doll, in comparison, is decidedly less articulated in its expressions, and it only heightens the sense that some of what made the character interesting has been stripped away.
With that said, the film also has its points that work surprisingly well. Most of the central performances are solid or at least workmanlike, from Gabriel Bateman as the sensitive, really-too-old-for-dolls Andy Barclay to Aubrey Plaza as his overtaxed, undervalued (but oddly youthful) mother. Coming off best is Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry as the reimagined detective Mike Norris from the original Child’s Play, bringing a weary sense of ennui but good humor to the role, although his story sadly never seems to mesh fully with that of Andy’s. Better still is the film’s gleeful application of blood, violence and gore, helping it easily earn its “R” rating and then some. In these moments, a theater full of hooting teens will be more than ready to forgive the narrative issues of Child’s Play, given the sight of limbs being sawn off with satisfyingly squelchy viscera. Let it not be said that the film fails to deliver on that front.
Despite the moments of inspired mayhem, however, Child’s Play ultimately feels lacking in soul, in exactly the same manner as the new Chucky. Its department store conclusion set piece feels oddly hurried, as if whole sequences were chopped out—Chucky briefly demonstrates all sorts of new abilities here that are abandoned as soon as they’re introduced, which is a shame. Just as the film seems to be gathering some steam and turning into Chopping Mall, it lifts its foot from the accelerator and comes to an abrupt end.
The audience is left to consider the sequel possibilities, but with a Chucky lacking in personal identity, why would the killer doll even desire to return for vengeance? If you don’t have a well-defined slasher villain, are you not lacking in foundation for a franchise? It’s almost as if the architects of the original series better understood the nature of the genre in which they were operating.
Allow us to suggest at least one sequel title, though: Child’s Play 2: Troubleshooting.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.