Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, and Gabriel Bateman
Written by Tyler Burton Smith
Directed by Lars Klevberg
A movie review hinges entirely on a writer’s personal likes and dislikes. Still, those of us who make a living at entertainment reporting usually attempt to maintain a semblance of journalistic objectivity. I can tell you exactly how a movie made me feel, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t put myself in the shoes of today’s horror fans and moviegoers in an attempt to discern what they might like. Movie reviews are further enhanced by exploring current trends, context, and the entirety of cinematic history. Therefore, my review of Orion’s Child’s Play remake will be split into two halves: My objective assessment of the film and my personal feelings as a life-long fan of the franchise launched by Don Mancini and Tom Holland in 1988.
Objectively, Child’s Play is a vastly entertaining romp. It starts with a bang and keeps the audience engaged with brisk pacing, thrills, and pitch-black comedy. The cast has amazing chemistry, especially Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Bateman who play mother and son Karen and Andy Barclay. Bateman sells us on the idea of an A.I. enhanced companion run amuck with an authenticity few actors of any age could convey. Plaza is both a protective Mama Bear and a flawed human being; not only does she dismiss her son’s outlandish claims, but she’s also in a relationship with a man who threatens and verbally abuses Andy. Still, the two share a special bond and the actors portray the genuine kinship necessary for moviegoers to emotionally invest in the story being told.
Brian Tyree Henry is also a stand-out as Detective Mike Norris. He establishes a personal connection with Karen and Andy, as his mother lives in the same apartment building. This makes him more than just an authoritarian outsider, rather a neighbor who is both emotionally and professionally drawn into Child’s Play’s violent happenings.
Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame is the voice of Chucky, a robotic “Buddi” whose circuits have gone screwy. The iconic actor’s inclusion in Child’s Play was a huge selling point and he delivers with menacing intensity. Hamill juxtaposes Chucky’s dastardly deeds with an innocence that elicits sympathy for this particular devil doll. Ultimately, Chucky sees violence through a child’s eyes: When characters laugh at exaggerated horror on television, the doll equates gore with laughter; as a tool designed to appease his master, murder seems like an acceptable way of eliminating negativity. The machine’s single-mindedness leads to a form of techno-obsession akin to themes explored in Black Mirror. But first and foremost, at every turn, Hamill’s Chucky keeps us on our toes.
So, while I’d recommend Child’s Play to anyone looking for some great escapist entertainment, I can’t help but process this film as a fan of the original franchise. In this context, as a reboot of an established series, Orion’s Child’s Play fails. In comparison, it stumbles at every turn and the very foundation the story is built on is problematic. In the original Child’s Play, Chucky is a talking doll; in Child’s Play 2019, he’s a fully autonomous robot. Here’s the issue: When a doll walks and articulates in ways it wasn’t designed for, it’s immediately alarming—it shouldn’t even exist, plummeting us immediately into the darkest pits of the Uncanny Valley. When a robot walks acts autonomously, on the other hand, it’s just acting in ways we’d expect. It’s only after Chucky begins committing atrocious acts that he becomes a threat to our wellbeing (and perhaps our collective sanity).
As someone deeply entrenched in the horror scene, Orion’s Child’s Play carried baggage from the get-go, and I’m not even talking about knee-jerk aversions towards remakes. Whereas 2013’s Evil Dead revived a franchise that had long been dormant, this movie is stepping on the toes of an active franchise. Original Child’s Play scribe Don Mancini reimagined his iconic devil doll for the 21st Century with 2013’s Curse of Chucky and 2017’s Cult of Chucky. Both films proved that there’s plenty of fuel left in the tank for Chucky fans and, even before Orion’s Child’s Play was announced, Mancini was hard at work on a Child’s Play TV series, one that will include OG Chucky actor Brad Dourif. Now, horror fans will feel their loyalties pulled between the classic franchise and Orion’s reboot. It’s a unique situation that I’ve never seen before, but just imagine the pandemonium that would ensue if two different studios produced Friday the 13th movies, each featuring alternate plot-points, variant mythologies, and different versions of Jason Voorhees.
The producers of Orion’s Child’s Play pose a relevant, timely question: What happens when we allow the likes of Siri and Alexa raise our children? It’s a scenario already on the verge of becoming a reality. But this approach varies so immensely from the original Child’s Play that it poses questions: Why make it a Child’s Play movie at all? Why didn’t Orion just create a new franchise with a new devil doll, one that could explore these uniquely 21st Century themes without toying with the expectation of Child’s Play fans who have loved the franchise for decades? If this Child’s Play had been disconnected from an established franchise, Orion wouldn’t face the inevitable backlash (and it’s coming, believe you me).
My assumed answers to these questions are depressing: Orion wanted the Child’s Play franchise’s existing, built-in audience; they know the brand will put butts in seats, no matter what the movie is about or how far it strays from its source material. It’s a manipulation of nostalgia. Orion also knows that there are huge merchandising opportunities for a rebooted Chucky. It’s sad because there was an opportunity to create something truly unique, something that could have stood on its own robotic feet. It wouldn’t have reinvented any wheels, but Annabelle (from The Conjuring) and Brahms (from The Boy) prove there’s room in the horror landscape for more than one evil doll.
In a nutshell, Orion’s Child’s Play is as entertaining as it is problematic. It may strike a chord with fans who aren’t familiar with Classic Chucky, but those fond of the original Child’s Play franchise will be forced to compartmentalize their attachments in order to have any hope of appreciating the new film—or even enjoying it.
Orion’s Child’s Play is extremely enjoyable—in a bubble. As a reboot of a classic horror franchise, the film is frustrating and problematic. While it excels at delivering action, thrills, laughs, gore, and even drama, this is not the Chucky we’ve known and loved these past decades. Orion’s Child’s Play would have held more integrity as a complete reinvention launched under a new brand.