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Chucky doll rising from behind a sleeping boy
Chucky’s here!
United Artists Releasing

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The new Child’s Play is a better sci-fi parable than a B-movie slasher

It almost makes you feel bad for the killer doll, now voiced by Mark Hamill

How I feel about Child’s Play, the remake/reboot of the 1988 slasher of the same name, roughly correlates to how I feel about “The Buddi Song,” the cutesy anthem of the new film. “You are my buddy until the end,” Mark Hamill warbles — which, obviously, I love — before weirdly syncopated drums kick in, and the increasing number of heavy-handed musical accoutrements take me from happily complacent to wondering if I might have made a huge mistake.

I’m sure some of my goodwill towards the new Child’s Play comes from the fact that I have no attachment to the original franchise. I’ve never seen any of Don Mancini’s Child’s Play movies (I’m sorry!), though I’m aware that he’s still working on the series, and that his lack of involvement with this remake has cast a pall over it. I’m also a sucker for movies about robots with feelings, which is essentially what this Child’s Play — which sure is gory, if not as funny as it wants to be — is for its entire first half.

Instead of being a serial killer’s soul trapped in the body of a doll, the new Chucky (voiced by Hamill) is simply a robot “Buddi” doll who misunderstands what will make his new friend Andy (Gabriel Bateman) happy. The doll’s face doesn’t become more or less demonic based on his state of mind — he’s just as unsettling and warped from scene to scene, like a version of Chucky (rendered through animatronic dolls and the help of some CGI) had been put through a game of telephone. (“Are you sure his eyes are supposed to look like they’re different sizes? OK, I guess ...”)

Chucky and Andy (Gabriel Bateman) play a board game.
Chucky and Andy (Gabriel Bateman) play a board game.
United Artists Releasing

If you’ve ever seen a movie where a robot with the capacity to learn is slowly corrupted by the people around it, you’ll know where Child’s Play is going. When a cat scratches Andy, it goes right on Chucky’s shit list, and unfortunately, Chucky’s safety filters are nonexistent. The man making him in a Vietnamese sweatshop (subversion or racism, you decide) is unceremoniously laid off, and turns off Chucky’s language and violence filters in a final act of defiance before committing suicide. Swearing and stabbing are thus back in the doll’s playbook.

Hamill, who takes over for series regular Brad Dourif, opts for a plaintive voice that almost makes Chucky cute — or at least makes him an object of pity rather than fear. It’s genuinely a little upsetting when Chucky, not understanding why his attempts at making Andy happy are out of bounds, pleads not to be locked away in the closet. It’s not his fault! He’s just a baby! Just teach him better!

But this wouldn’t be a slasher movie (or at least, not the kind of revamped, B-horror director Lars Klevberg is trying to make) if Chucky remained sympathetic. His initial reasoning quickly mutates into possessiveness, which feels a little more in line with the original franchise. The updated Chucky connects to and functions with all smart home devices, and the power that affords him is, in a Black Mirror kind of way, frightening to consider. But the standard-issue slasher storyline that ensues — Chucky’s ability to control tech dwindles to cameras and drones by the end — isn’t as interesting as the movie’s questions about artificial intelligence.

woman sitting with her hand on the right side of her head
Aubrey Plaza as Andy’s mother.
United Artists Releasing

If this Child’s Play weren’t required to be a Chucky movie, it could easily have drifted in the direction of, say, Harry and the Hendersons or the boy-and-his-zombie movie Fido, or even a less fantastical analog to the relationship between Gollum and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. When Andy realizes he has to destroy Chucky, he’s genuinely distraught, and were the only real demand of this movie not “killer doll,” it’d be easy to imagine a redemptive arc. That is to say, this didn’t have to be a Child’s Play movie, and might have been better — albeit unable to rely on the fan base of an existing property — if it weren’t.

There’s also an emotional hook that goes unexplored thanks to the killer pivot. Chucky finds his way to Andy because he’s been returned, as his original owners don’t like that his eyes occasionally turn red, and Andy’s mother (Aubrey Plaza) manages to save him from going straight into the trash. Andy in turn has difficulty socializing with the neighborhood kids, in equal parts because he’s new, and because they tease him for using a hearing aid. When Andy and Chucky start bonding, it’s not least because they don’t have anybody else.

The more the film tries to be a copy of an existing movie rather than doing its own thing (the more the drum kit and “la la” chorus dominate “The Buddi Song” rather than letting Hamill work his magic), the worse it becomes. The new Child’s Play isn’t completely irredeemable, but it’s a shell that ultimately doesn’t have that much personality, whether it’s that of a serial killer or a baby robot.

Child’s Play is in theaters now.