Something happened to horror movies in the 1980s, starting a few years earlier with films such as “Halloween” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: The villains in brutally violent slasher movies became the heroes — or, at least, the characters audiences found themselves rooting for — which in turn created the opportunity for franchises, where these virtually unstoppable killing machines came back in sequel after sequel, like some kind of recurring nightmare, to wreak more havoc. Michael, Jason, Freddy Krueger loomed iconic in the cultural imagination, spawning a wave of imitators, of which the most surreal may well have been Chucky — a blue-eyed, battery-operated doll possessed, via voodoo curse, by the soul of a deranged psycho.
From the beginning, the “Child’s Play” movies showed a playful self-awareness, openly acknowledging the sheer ridiculousness of their premise even while concocting some of the most elaborately over-the-top means of dispatching their victims — a combination that translated into no fewer than seven movies. Considering Hollywood’s more recent horror tendency to reboot, reuse and recycle many of its most recognizable franchises, it seems all but inevitable that Chucky would return once again, this time with a new origin story and a slightly different look.
If anything, it felt like poor form when Jennifer Tilly, who played the Bride of Chucky in the last four installments, took to Twitter the day the trailer for the new “Child’s Play” dropped to start a #NotMyChucky meme. Turns out, she’s not wrong. Within the film’s first minute, when an infomercial for a company called Kaslan Corporation cuts to its popular Buddi doll for the first time, “Child’s Play” fans can feel their hearts sink. (At the Los Angeles press screening, a laugh broke out, signaling early that we had entered bad-movie territory.) This clearly isn’t the classic “Good Guys” design seen in previous installments, even if the movie’s main Buddi still christens himself Chucky.
Remember the disappointment you felt that Christmas when Santa brought you an off-brand Cabbage Patch Kids counterfeit instead of the real thing? Well, if you grew up on the “Child’s Play” movies, then brace yourself for more of the same, since the doll’s expression is wrong, his glimmering-LED eyes look wonky, and no child in his right mind would want this creepy robot as a toy. Besides, what use would they have for a Buddi’s advanced features, which, when synced to other Kaslan devices, include controlling the TV, adjusting the thermostat and ordering the company’s Uber equivalent from a built-in rideshare app?
So, if this is not Tilly’s Chucky, and not the one fans expected either, just who was “Child’s Play” made for? No question the filmmakers (which no longer include Chucky’s creator, Don Mancini, replaced by Norwegian director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith) are targeting millennials who missed out on the earlier films. But cynically speaking, it feels as if they’re skewing even younger than that, toward those closer in age to Buddi’s new owner, Andy (Gabriel Bateman), assuming perhaps that parents who allowed themselves to be scarred as kids by the earlier “Child’s Play” movies might allow their offspring to see it.
This would be a very bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the deaths are genuinely disturbing and unbelievably gory (spoilers follow in the second half of this sentence, so skip ahead if you’d rather discover this unpleasantness yourself): One guy gets the top of his head chewed off by a heavy-duty garden tiller, and another winds up straddling a table saw. More upsetting, if this is possible, is the gleeful way Klevberg presents these kills, inviting audiences to laugh at the twisted ingenuity of such macabre ways to die — something grown-ups may have the perspective to do, but that doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude to be instilling in the younger generation. Maybe that sounds alarmist. Not every movie featuring young protagonists is meant for kids (“The Exorcist” certainly wasn’t), although “Child’s Play” leans on many of the same tropes as “Super 8” and “Stranger Things,” where kids must team up to protect the incredulous adults, including friendly neighborhood detective Mike (Brian Tyree Henry).
That doesn’t square with the franchise’s emphasis on Chucky, who is no longer inhabited by the spirit of Brad Dourif’s lunatic killer (Mark Hamill voices Chucky here, whereas Dourif will return for the upcoming TV series) but has instead been programmed to go rogue by a disgruntled employee at the Chinese factory where the doll was assembled. This nameless assembly-line worker removes all the safety precautions on one Buddi doll and inserts a malevolent chip before throwing himself off the roof, setting in motion a robot uprising of sorts. Actually, it’s not quite clear what his hack accomplishes, beyond turning the doll’s eyes red and priming it to repeat curse words and exhibit potentially dangerous behavior.
After a customer returns a malfunctioning doll to the megastore where she works, Andy’s mom, Karen (Aubrey Plaza, master of sarcasm and 21st-century ambivalence, which here take the place of traditional parental concern), brings the broken Buddi home to her son, who makes a few wisecracks about how he’s too old to play with such a toy. This is the new normal for horror movies: The screenplays have to seem hipper than the premise they represent, which puts “Child’s Play” in the weird position of pointing out and poking fun at all the ways it fails to make sense.
That meta aspect ultimately becomes part of the fun, and has driven the unusual marketing campaign, which, recognizing that the film opens opposite “Toy Story 4,” depicts Chucky terrorizing the Pixar toon’s most recognizable characters. No such scenes exist in the movie, although there’s a sick coincidence in the fact the owner’s name is Andy in both franchises, especially when the “Child’s Play” reboot features a kind of existential crisis for Chucky — a variation on the codependency issues Woody and company have faced in recent films. For all its homicidal tendencies, this AI abomination sincerely wants to be Andy’s “friend to the end,” and most of its behavior represents a cross between “be careful what you wish for” misinterpretations (don’t tell a literal-minded doll that you can’t stand the family cat, for instance) and creative ways of troubleshooting the smart technologies offered by companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google (even then, the movie doesn’t seem to understand why driverless cars intimidate us).
Despite all these upgrades, Chucky seems less intimidating than before. Part of this can be blamed on the ugly new character design, although he’s really hamstrung by the inevitable limits of an animatronic character’s performance. While the eyes are the only feature that appear to be computer generated, the facial expressions can be confusing, relying on the score to cue us to what Chucky is “thinking.” But when you get down to it, his personality isn’t all that interesting anymore. At least the fact the film doesn’t take itself too seriously can make “Child’s Play” fun to laugh at — a kind of good-bad movie experience that’s nowhere near as entertaining as that recent “Black Mirror” episode where Miley Cyrus plays a pop star with a dangerous tie-in toy.