Cinema Dispatch: Child’s Play

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Child’s Play and all the images you see in this review are owned by United Artists Releasing

Directed by Lars Klevberg

I’m gonna say it right now.  Even though the movie gets quite a bit of praise, Child’s Play is still underrated.  It’s one of those series where the later films defined the look and tone that stuck in the popular consciousness to the point that the merits of the original can still be somewhat overlooked.  It’s a lot like with the first Friday the 13th which is mostly known for the non-Jason killer and the sorta-Jason jump scare.  The first Child’s Play really does have a lot going for it even if the more recognizable elements like the campiness and Jennifer Tilly’s Tiffany are absent.  In a way that kind of makes it perfect for a remake as the finer points of the original can feel fresh to newer audiences who only know of the franchise in the broadest of terms.  Then again, turning Chucky from a possessed doll to a bad robot doesn’t feel particularly inspired, but I guess we can’t begrudge a remake for trying something new, right?  Does this manage to capture the spirit of the original film while telling it in a new and interesting way, or is this yet another mess of a movie to throw on the pile with The Nightmare on Elm Street remake, The Black Christmas remake, and whatever the heck that Rings movie was supposed to be?  Let’s find out!!

Andy Barclay and his mother Karen (Gabriel Bateman and Aubrey Plaza) have just moved to the city and are trying to start fresh with a new life, yet neither one of them seem to be doing a great job of it.  Karen is in a relationship with a huge jerk named Shane (David Lewis), Andy isn’t making any friends with the kids in his building, and to make matters worse Karen has to work the return desk at a department store which means she has to deal with angry jerks ALL day long.  You’d think she’d recognize the jerk-gene in her boyfriend considering how many of them visit her on a daily basis, but regardless of that, Andy’s birthday is coming up and she’s got nothing for him.  I mean I guess she COULD buy him a Cabbage Patch knockoff doll, but considering it’s not the late eighties and he’s thirteen, it doesn’t seem like a good fit.  Maybe she’ll “procure” one of those Buddi Dolls that one of the customers returned which I GUESS is supposed to be an A.I. assistant only MORE anthropomorphic since it’s housed inside a creepy looking robot doll.  Hey, it’s cheaper than a new phone!  Karen takes it home and Andy, while initially resistant, ends up finding a soft spot for the little bugger named Chucky (Mark Hamill), but not everything is as it should be because Chucky is not just an A.I.; it’s a LEARNING A.I. who observes things around it and jumps to the conclusion that murder might just might be the best way to solve Andy’s problems, and unfortunately for Andy this isn’t a problem that can be solved by turning it off and turning it back on again.  Can Andy teach Chucky the ways of peace before he starts leaving a lot of bloody messes in his wake?  Just how far will Chucky’s programming go to ensure Andy’s “happiness” at the exclusion of everything else?  Couldn’t we let Mark Hamill use his Joker voice and just say Andy downloaded a custom speech pack from the cloud!?

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“I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”     “Do you have to say that EVERY time we start a new game?”

I am SO conflicted about this movie!  In a certain sense, it’s almost the PERFECT remake of a horror film because it knows that it can’t just be a shot for shot remake of the original yet also can’t abandon what make the franchise work in the first place.  It’s got so much more production value behind it and craftsmanship behind the camera than films like this usually get, it’s got a cast that understands the material and makes the most of their scenes, and I even enjoyed Mark Hamill’s performance even if Brad Dourif is still the one true actor of Chucky.  SO WHY DON’T I LIKE THIS MOVIE!?  Yeah, I’m gonna come down MOSTLY negative on this which is how I felt leaving the theater despite everything I saw being so much better than I expected it to be.  Heck, I don’t think ANYONE expected a Child’s Play remake to be anything but terrible and this exceeds those expectations greatly… and yet I can’t quite bring myself to say that I personally enjoyed it?  Is it nostalgia for the original, or is there something more to this that I’m gonna have to find a way to articulate?  Well I certainly HOPE it’s the latter; otherwise I wouldn’t be much of a critic, would I?

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“IT STINKS!  IT STINKS!  IT STINKS!  IT STINKS!”     “Andy, did you make Chucky watch The Snowman again?”

What works about this movie is that despite it being a VERY different interpretation of this story, it’s still recognizably from the same starting point; i.e. the central horror conceit that the drama and the scares all build around.  My takeaway from the original film is that it’s about how scary and frustrating it is for kids when adults don’t believe them and they’re powerless to change their minds.  In that film Andy is constantly telling people that Chucky is alive and doing all these things but no one is listening and the consequence of their inaction inevitably put his life in danger.  The sequels got more into Charles Lee Ray and the lore itself (often a go to for sequels), but that paranoia in being menaced by something no one thinks is there is a really good foundation to build a thrilling horror film around; all of which is very much present in this new film and is updated for modern audience.  Now sure, the technophobia angle here is hardly breaking new ground for the genre, but it is a great way to pitch this story and franchise as something that is still relevant today.  There’s also SO much more effort on display here which is the last thing you’d expect from a horror remake; taking inspiration (or at least being comparable to) stuff like the recent IT movie and even the third season of that TV show Slasher (I haven’t seen seasons one or two) with its creative use of cinematography, lighting, atmosphere rich sets, and colorful characters to fill out the background.  It all adds a sense of style that greatly distinguishes it from the original film which had a much more straightforward aesthetic to it.

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“Cleanup in aisle four.  We’re gonna need the BIG bucket.”

So despite ALL the things that this movie gets right, why don’t I like it?  It’s a question I’m still not quite sure how to answer, and I hope it’s more than just nostalgia for the original which is admittedly a good film but not one that is above reproach or untouchable for a remake.  I think it ultimately comes down to its tone which is something else it kind of has in common with the third season of Slasher.  That season frankly disturbed me but not in a way that I could enjoy, though I guess your mileage will vary with… well whatever the point of that season ultimately was.  The whole bleak and grim feel of it didn’t really “click” with me as it really boiled down to this uncomfortable mishmash of shock value, dark humor, and rather confusing attempts to push boundaries; all of which by the way is in this movie which is why I’m even bringing it up.  Certainly not to the degree of Slasher, but there was a sort of mean streak to it that felt like it was trying way too hard and was WAY too sure it was nailing it.  Now don’t get me wrong!  There IS plenty about this movie that works as I just got through explaining, but there’s a sort of smugness to the whole thing that kind of turned me away; not to mention how poorly it switched between humor and utterly dreadful moments.  Seriously, why is Andy’s trauma played one hundred percent genuinely, yet other kids getting hurt or traumatized is played up for laughs?  It’s hard to try and tell us one thing is funny after showing us that it HASN’T been funny up to that point, and in doing so it ends up feeling rather cruel in those moments rather than cathartic or releasing tension.  Also, in the original film, Andy is a lot younger and the perversion of something innocent and childlike is played sincerely rather than cynically which is the direction this movie takes.  Chucky is the horrifying and subversive element in that first movie, but what he’s subverting is actually sincere as the Buddy Dolls are toys you could genuinely see a child playing with.  Here, it’s no secret right off the bat that the Buddi Dolls are nightmarish monstrosities of grotesque plastic and privacy destroying data collection, and on top of that Andy being much older here makes it harder to buy that sense of trust that Chucky is supposed to be taking advantage of.  Think of this way.  In the original Child’s Play, would you think to yourself “you should have known better Andy!  Why did you trust Chucky in the first place?”  I mean I’m sure some jerks out there probably think that, but the point is that I don’t feel the turn from a sincere if silly premise to one full of cynicism, winking humor, and even mockery, is a move that fits with the story they’re trying to tell.  Yes, the sequels (particularly Bride and Seed) did go into straight up horror camp irony, but the original film wouldn’t have worked with that tone and I don’t think this film does either.

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The heck are YOU smiling about, you jerk?

On top of all that, I think the other thing that doesn’t work here is Chucky himself.  There’s no doubt that Mark Hamill is great as the voice of Chucky here and the movie does a good job completely distinguishing this version from the Brad Dourif one that I don’t mind the change, but the problem is that… well, he’s just a robot.  The movie even goes out of its way early on to let us know he isn’t super natural or acting outside of his coding (no lighting strike for this Johnny 5) and in doing so his motivation feels utterly contrived and frankly asinine.  With Charles Lee Ray he was working towards a goal and under a ticking clock that only put Andy in more and more danger as time when on. This Chucky?  I guess he wants to spend more time with Andy?  That’s REALLY all we’re getting here?  Sure, a new interpretation of this character means a new motivation and if there’s one thing that hasn’t really aged well about the original it’s the voodoo magic stuff, but the film ends up suffering because what they came up with lacks tension and a certain amount of humanity to it.  Because he’s a cold calculating machine (again, no super natural stuff is in play AT ALL here), you never really get a sense of desperation, anger, hatred, even cruel humor or sadistic enjoyment out of the little terminator, and I definitely felt that emptiness in the villain throughout the movie.

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“NOT PROGRAMMED TO LOVE!  ONLY TO HAAAAAATE!!”

So yeah, maybe I did come to something of an answer here as to why I didn’t quite like this movie.  For all that it gets right in setting up a new interpretation of this franchise and putting enough resources behind it to make it come to life, and yet it doesn’t seem to have a heart to make it more than an exercise in competent modernization.  Look, as much as I love horror films it doesn’t take a WHOLE lot for something to rub me the wrong way and sour the whole experience, so chances are that a lot of the problems I’ve expressed here aren’t gonna bother you in the least and you’ll enjoy this for what it brings to the table.  It’s well made, it has a unique interpretation of the character, and if you prefer you horror comedies to have a rather bleak outlook on humanity, then this might be the perfect movie for you.  Even with all my problems I’m still glad that I saw it and that it turned out SO much better than I had any feeling it would.  I’ll probably give it another chance once it gets a home release to see if I can find a bit more to like about it, and if you’re on the fence I’d advise the same.  Then again, I GENUINELY like Child’s Play 3, so take that for what you will.  Heck, I probably just invalidated every opinion I’ve ever had by admitting that…

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