Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s a sequence in director Lars Klevberg’s CHILD’S PLAY that plays like a censorship advocate’s wet dream when it surprisingly (and stupidly) lends a voice to the chorus that violent tendencies are caused by watching violent movies. This psychological connection between sick individuals and entertainment has been refuted by numerous studies over the years. However, here, the wrong-headed sentiment is given life when a hyper-bloodbath horror film (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2) motivates the insatiable bloodlust of one poorly-programmed, sentient consumer product.
Though the outline remains similar to the classic 1988 slasher film, this new iteration written by Tyler Burton Smith fashions a new identity with its commentary on technology, disability, the plight of sweatshop workers and the aforementioned psychology behind violent behavior. Only this splatterrific remake can’t figure out how to blend all these heady ideas into a cohesive, intelligent and terrifying narrative. Still, the decidedly different tone helps distance it from its predecessor, for better and worse.
Director Tom Holland’s original told the story of a single mother and her son forced to fend off a popular doll, “Chucky,” possessed by the soul of a demented killer. The desperation behind the dramatic conflict between a mother, who doesn’t believe her child, and her young offspring, who can’t get adults to listen to the truth, is palpable and heartbreaking. Their tenuous bond being broken is legitimately scarier than the murderous doll’s kills. There’s deeper poignancy earned given the kid is tasked to light his once beloved birthday gift on fire – a metaphor for the loss of childhood naïveté – in order to stop the irrepressible torment.
Klevberg and company’s re-imagining lacks this same emotional fuel. Instead it relies on the potential of big ideas that they fail to follow through on. Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a hearing-impaired, desperately lonely tween whose single, hard-working mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) brings home a “Buddi” as a gift. The mega-popular doll, which doubles as a controlling device for smart technology, is being phased out for a newer, flashier model. For a kid feeling like an outsider to his peers, it seems like the perfect gift. Unbeknownst to Mom, however, this particular unit was tinkered with by a disgruntled, suicidal sweatshop worker who unlocked all of its safety firewalls, unleashing a demented Pinnochio-like creation.
At first, the newly-named Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) glitches manifest in a Max Hedroom stutter and eye color shift from blue to red. He also intrudes on Andy’s personal space, creepily singing a lullaby to coax him to sleep and whispering vaguely threatening phrases (“I’ll never leave you”). They soon become fast friends and Chucky pulls Andy out of his shell, helping him make friends with kids in the building. All seems fine until Andy is scratched by his cat Rooney and Chucky’s over-protective mode kicks into gear, strangling the cat. Chucky’s naïve-turned-noxious nature is further stoked when he witnesses violent behavior on TV and mimics it. Fearing punishment, Andy keeps this all a secret from his mom. But in doing so, he unwittingly allows Chucky’s feverish savagery to thrive and draw the attention of Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry).
The feature leans more into dark comedy over the original’s straight-faced serious approach (yes, even in the bombastic context of it being about a talking doll from Hell). Nothing is every truly funny though. The Chucky presented here is unlike the vengeful psychopath from the original. Despite Hamill’s vocal inflections giving the character a yearning sense of self and sadness, the filmmakers paint him as if he’s Andy’s obsessive stalker. Chucky seems to have somewhat of a conscience, since his kills primarily focus on jerks he views as threats – like Karen’s boyfriend Shane (David Lewis), her cheating boss Wes (Amro Majzoub), and voyeuristic building handyman Gabe (Trent Redekop). This idea isn’t carried through properly once Chucky turns his jealous wrath on Andy’s guiltless elderly neighbor Doreen (Carlease Burke).
The filmmakers attempt to make an interesting connection between how society views Andy’s disability and how Chucky is considered broken. Chucky manipulatively questions in their climactic face-off, “Maybe you’re broken too?” Sadly, they forgot to tie this into the overarching narrative in any satisfactory manner – subtle or otherwise. Even the obvious commentary on the dangers of our modern world’s over-reliance on technology gets lost in the shuffle. Plus, Andy’s friends – Pugg (Ty Consiglio), Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Omar (Marlon Kazadi) – don’t believe him, until they conveniently do without anything substantial motivating this change.
That’s not to say this is all bad. Bear McCreary’s score absolutely slays. He utilizes children’s instruments (like playtime xylophones and pianos) and other offbeat orchestral ones (like a Hurdy Gurdy) to gift the picture with an inviting, yet unsettling soundscape. Brendan Uegama’s cinematography is radiant. Primary colors are saturated, making the reds of the gleefully gory blood splatters pop off the screen. Klevberg and Uegama’s vision feels like a sadistic version of an Amblin film (most notably E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, right down to the lead’s red hoodie and bestie with a glowing finger). And, through sheer effort it seems, the ensemble find pathos with what little genuine emotions the lackluster material permits.
CHILD’S PLAY opens on June 21.