Every time Mark Hamill’s Chucky asks “Are we having fun now?” in the new Child’s Play, it’s a guaranteed chortler. The voice actor is clearly having a ball, adding another potential franchised cadence to his already impressive roster. And the quasi-catchphrase comes at points of increasingly absurd juxtaposition, as this earnest doll asks for friendship while gripping a butcher’s knife. In moments like these, it’s fun. But worth sitting through a whole movie? You might want to look into the lifetime warranty on this thing.
A little over 30 years after the original Chucky terrorized his owner and millions of children, the long-running Child’s Play series is getting a redesign—most notably without franchise creator Don Mancini and voice-of-Chucky Brad Dourif. Buffeted by It producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith, Lars Klevberg (Polaroid) stylishly directs an amusing script by Tyler Burton Smith, updating the story for today’s plugged-in generations.
Instead of the bloodthirsty spirit of a serial killer transferred into a doll’s body via voodoo (plenty problematic then and now), Chucky starts out as Buddi, an animatronic doll/digital assistant along the lines of Alexa—if Alexa could control your home surveillance system and call you a self-driving car to bingo with the flick of one E.T.-inspired glowing finger. However, the Buddi that winds up with widowed single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) and her lonely son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is defective: He’s had all of his violence inhibitors and language parental controls removed.
The moment this is revealed earned the first of many laughs during my screening—the knowing, unspoken agreement of what if the technology that controls our lives had its safety protocols switched off? Then we’d really be fucked. It’s more relatable than the serial killer voodoo option and turns the focus away from the evil of one to the evils of society. Because even with its creepy glowing red eyes, Chucky isn’t actually bad until it catches up on some pop culture. A scene in which the doll observes Andy and his new friends laughing at a luridly over-the-top slasher film is a fascinating cautionary tale on the horrors of a machine learning from the very media it was implicitly created to serve.
Watching Chucky violently try to remove all obstacles between it and Andy’s friendship, and Andy’s dawning horror at what he has unintentionally wrought, provokes some howlingly funny moments not unlike the kids’ experience watching their own horror movie. To give away the punchlines would spoil the effect, but suffice to say that they’re scattered throughout like, say, watermelons. A solid supporting cast of neighbors from their apartment complex helps, from pragmatic badass Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos, though as the only redhead among boys, she veers a bit into It territory) to long-suffering Detective Mike (Brian Tyree Henry) and his amusing mother Doreen (Carlease Burke).
Yet despite all these one-liners and details, the movie still doesn’t work overall. Partly because it’s the same joke over and over, with the creepy doll (shout-out to the practical effects team) doing jump scares on poor humans. There are some odd moments in the script too, like when Mike groans about Andy and his friends being “goddamn Millennials” despite the fact that they’re indisputably Gen Z, and the thirtysomething Mike and Karen are the actual Millennials. Or the fact that said Gen Z kids can crack jokes about the robot apocalypse but seem to have no frame of reference for murderous-doll movies—not even an Annabelle gag.
One instance where the lack of over-attention was appreciated was the movie establishing that Andy is hard of hearing, and wears a hearing aid, but then not commenting on it for most of the movie. While it does play into a later plot point, it’s not tied up in the premise in a schlocky way; if anything, it makes for a surprisingly emotional moment about how frequently kids in horror films aren’t listened to.
The remake’s most baffling misstep, however, is to introduce Buddi as part of the all-encompassing Kaslan Industry and then not take full advantage of the ramifications of a sentient AI fed on horror who can make every nightmare about rogue technology a reality.
Likely they’re saving that for the inevitable sequel, which makes for a very present-day horror but also veers further away from what made the Chucky franchise so delightfully bonkers. Hamill could have plenty of fun terrorizing kids and adults alike in, say, virtual reality, but this Chucky has some twisted shoes to fill. Unless it can find a way to top dolls having sex and giving birth, it’s just not ludicrous enough to justify its existence. But with Mancini mounting his own Chucky reboot, a television series on Syfy with Channel Zero producer Nick Antosca and Dourif returning, fans could be in for something truly scary: an abundance of choice.
Child’s Play opens on June 21.