From the Archives: Child’s Play is everything a remake should be

From the Archives: Child’s Play is everything a remake should be

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

In the few weeks before the release of Child’s Play, the advertising all but disappeared. A film that once seemed confident, going so far as to tout itself as “from the producers of IT,” suddenly appeared to be next in a long line of films that a skittish studio opted to dump. The general consensus was that it probably wasn’t very good, and all involved were hoping it would be forgotten as soon as it was released, perhaps one day breaking even in the home video market. It happens all the time, and usually for good reason. There are outliers, such as Under the SIlver Lake, a tremendous film whose release was absolutely botched by A24, but for the most part, you can usually trust these purposefully forgotten films to be pretty weak.

I can certainly understand why a studio would want to avoid falling flat on its face pushing a remake of a film which is still widely beloved and actively in franchise. It makes sense to want to step away from a product seemingly designed to evoke enmity from half of its potential audience. A Child’s Play TV series is in the pipeline with much of the original talent attached (including the genius behind it all, Don Mancini, who has understandably expressed disinterest in the remake), meaning there’s a line drawn in the sand to some degree. Which Chucky do you support? Well, as it turns out, there’s plenty of room for both iterations of the killer doll, and the studio would have been smart to go full bore on this one. The Child’s Play remake is not just a wickedly demented blast, but it’s everything a remake should be.

By taking the DNA of the original film and tweaking it to tell a new story, Child’s Play does what so may remakes fail to: it makes a case for its own existence. This film has no interest in stepping on the toes of what came before, nor is it trying to outdo prior takes on the material. This is a new product made with old ingredients.

The film opens in the sweatshop where Kaslan Industries (think a more cartoonish Apple) assembles its products. They are currently in production of the Buddi doll: a humanoid robot that syncs with all other Kaslan products. Buddi is your personal companion, and once he imprints on you, he’s your friend to the end! Why anyone would want a robotic assistant that looks like an evil child remains a mystery, yet the strange world in which Child’s Play is set makes this idea feel right at home. When one of the sweatshop workers falls asleep on the job he is admonished by his boss and told to go home after finishing one final Buddi doll. Naturally, the worker decides to get his revenge by, you guessed it, hacking the software of a Buddi doll and disabling its “violence inhibitors.”

Yes, “violence inhibitors.” Now you know exactly the wonderful tone Child’s Play is working with.

This particular Buddi finds its way into the hands of Andy (Gabriel Bateman), as a birthday gift from his exhausted mother Karen (Aubrey Plaza). She works at a store that is preparing for the release of the upcoming Buddi 2, and was able to get a slightly “defective” Buddi from the returns section. Neither she nor Andy have any idea how truly defective this Buddi really is.

Instead of being about a possessed doll trying to transfer his soul into a human body, this is a tale about artificial intelligence run amok. Chucky wants to be friends with Andy. He wants to make him happy; to entertain him. But due to his manufacturing deficiencies, he takes suggestions like “I wish my mom’s boyfriend would go away” a bit too seriously. When Chucky sees Andy and his friends watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and laughing their heads off, he takes this as a behavioral suggestion. You get the idea.

One of the key things brought over from the original film is Karen being a single mother. That comes into play heavily here. Karen is doing her best, as is Andy, but their situation is not always easy. A Buddi doll is a considerable expenditure, and for them, it’s a bit of a dip into the good life. When things start to get hairy, the bond between them is threatened. Andy can’t get his biggest advocate to believe him, and Karen doesn’t know how to handle a potentially troubled child. Also in the mix is their neighbor, Detective Mike (Bryan Tyree Henry). He befriends Andy and his mother, and gets unwittingly involved in the ensuing carnage.

Throughout the film there are smart references to other horror properties, sly tags to the existing Child’s Play lore, and more than a view visual tags to E.T. This isn’t blatant fan service, however. These references are not called attention to, and none come with a wink or nod. In fact, if you’re not looking for them, you won’t notice them at all. You’ll be too busy watching the inspired, gruesome violence that once it starts, never lets up. Set-piece after set-piece, the stakes raise, as do Chucky’s capabilities, culminating in one of the most satisfying slasher finales of recent memory.

The main thing we forget about the original Child’s Play is that it wasn’t until the fourth film that Chucky became the central character. Child’s Play was about Andy and his mother. As such, this new robotic version of him is a brilliant way to bring the story back to the humans while avoiding the impossible task of rebuilding Charles Lee Ray from the ground up. You’re simply never going to make a better Chucky than the one who’s still out there killing people and abusing voodoo, so why even try? And who better to voice your alternative creation than Mark Hamill. He brings a sinister innocence to Chucky that is absolutely essential (if you’ve seen Brigsby Bear, you know exactly what I mean). Now when we laugh at Chucky (this is a very funny movie), it’s not because he’s wantonly crass. It’s because he doesn’t realize how crass he is being.

I should note that above all else, Child’s Play looks fantastic. The colors pop, the violence is tactile, and the direction by Lars Klevberg makes the dense geography of each set-piece a blast to get tangled up in. And if you’re still feeling reticence over the utterly bonkers face of the Buddi doll, you’re not alone. The movie knows how ridiculous it looks, and often makes it a hilarious perk.

Child’s Play is now playing in Philly theaters.

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