“Are we having fun now?”
As you make your way through this year’s ill-advised and somehow relatively well-received remake of 1988’s Child’s Play, you’ll hear Mark Hamill utter this bastardized version of Adam Scott’s Party Down catchphrase over and over again. Unlike Scott’s defeated and relatable Henry Pollard, however, the insincerity behind Hamill’s delivery of Chucky’s favorite new question is indicative of a film that assumes it’s worthy of your adoration simply for existing.
As a longtime fan of Don Mancini’s still running Child’s Play franchise, I’ve kept one skeptical eye on Orion Pictures’ remake since it was announced almost a year ago. Initially and rightfully, the transparent cash grab was dismissed by horror fans when it was revealed that not only would Mancini have no involvement in the production, but Brad Dourif would not be returning to provide his objectively perfect voice for Chucky.
But then, with less than three months until release, Orion threw a fucking Hail Mary by announcing that Mark Hamill, the poster boy for fandom, would be voicing our new Buddy—I’m sorry, Buddi. Cue hundreds of new write-ups from otherwise uninterested publications, and baby, you got a stew going. Even after undermining all that good will with one of the most embarrassingly bad marketing campaigns in recent memory, the critical reception after the movie’s release wasn’t terrible. And I was shook. So, I paid real actual American dollars for a ticket and went to see the 2019 remake of Child’s Play.
Directed by Lars Klevberg from a script by Tyler Burton Smith, Child’s Play doesn’t actually have much in common with its namesake. Honestly, aside from a few character names and occupations, the concept of “it’s a doll… and it kills people” is the only common thread. Instead of Haitian Vodou and a vengeful serial killer, Smith and Klevberg give us a multinational corporation and artificial intelligence. Listen, I’m not saying that one is inherently better than the other, but one is inherently better than the other.
Even with its high-tech angle, the plot of Child’s Play is pretty straight-forward. Buddi is a new line of artificial intelligence dolls from the Kaslan Corporation that can not only learn from their surroundings and interactions, but also control all of your home’s Kaslan-branded smart devices! Convenient! Meanwhile, in Vietnam, a disgruntled factory worker disables the safety protocols on one of the dolls, which eventually makes its way into the hands of the hapless Barclay family.
Swiped from the returns pile of the store where she works, Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) brings the malfunctioning doll home as an early birthday gift for her 13-year-old son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman). The doll names itself Chucky for some inexplicable reason and becomes immediately attached to Andy. After learning about violence from watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (yes, you read that right), Chucky decides to kill anyone who gets between him and his new best friend.
Other than a personal distaste for films that rely on “oOoOo look how scary technology is!” as a basic premise, that synopsis seems relatively inoffensive. The film spends a good portion of its first act focused on the doll itself. Its capabilities. Its features. It even opens with an in-movie Kaslan commercial detailing all the ways in which Buddi can connect with all of your other devices. And, truthfully, there’s a lot there to explore. Unfortunately, the film spends almost no time actually exploring any of it. Aside from a few moments which I won’t spoil here, Chucky spends very little time digitally controlling anything and most of his time just doing things the old-fashioned way.
As an example, let’s take a look at all the tech that goes into the film’s first real kill: Chucky knocks a guy off a ladder, manually switches on a rototiller with his little doll hand, and stabs him in the chest with a kitchen knife as the rototiller takes care of the rest. Why is our AI demon being upstaged by landscaping equipment?
Disappointingly manual kills aside, the film’s biggest sin is its absolutely unforgivable character design. There isn’t a moment in Child’s Play where Chucky looks like anything but the prop for a horror film. Before Charles Lee Ray shoved his soul into that Buddy doll back in 1988, it looked just like the type of toy you’d expect to see overworked parents trampling each other for on Black Friday. 2019’s Buddi looks exactly as fucking evil in the first few seconds of the opening commercial as he does in the film’s final act.
In this version of the story, Chucky never even felt like an actual character. He had no personality. He was just a doll. In the original film, the Buddy doll had limited movement and spoke just a few pre-recorded phrases in a child’s voice. So when it whips its head around and starts screaming “YOU STUPID BITCH, I’LL TEACH YOU TO FUCK WITH ME” at Catherine Hicks in a grown man’s voice, it’s absolutely shocking.
In contrast, the Buddi doll already has the ability to walk around on his own, so movement is no longer scary. And it already speaks in Mark Hamill’s “this is how a little boy sounds” voice, so speaking is no longer scary. What’s left to be scared of? What’s supposed to shock us?
Even though the film was a tonal mess and spent its 90-minute runtime oscillating between taking itself super seriously and trying to prove what a fun, popcorn horror movie it could be, most of the cast did an admirable job working with what they were given. While I wasn’t a fan of Hamill’s take on Chucky, Aubrey Plaza was a wonderfully believable Karen Barclay, and Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry brought a depth to Detective Mike that we didn’t see in the original.
I’ve seen a number of other reviewers claiming that this film would work better without the Child’s Play branding. The problem is that Orion, Klevberg, and Smith did make a Child’s Play movie, and by capitalizing on the popularity of an iconic franchise, invited all the comparisons that they’d be better off without. They got the name recognition that they wanted and, because of it, are being held to a standard that they clearly had no intention of meeting.
So, to finally answer Chucky’s burning question: No, we are decidedly not having fun now.