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Review: The controversy-stirring ‘Child’s Play’ remake is creepy fun before it malfunctions

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Gabriel Bateman bonds with Chucky, part of the line of Buddi dolls, in the updated spin on ‘80s horror movie “Child’s Play.”
(Eric Milner / Orion Pictures)
Film Critic

Beneath all the nasty jolts and vicious bloodlettings in the new “Child’s Play” is almost enough material to furnish a mildly interesting episode of “Black Mirror.” A high-tech, ultra-gory reboot of the 1988 thriller that spawned a still-ongoing horror franchise, this new movie also turns on a creepy red-haired doll named Chucky, only this time he hasn’t been supernaturally possessed by the soul of a serial killer. He’s something altogether more banal, a defective robot manufactured by a powerful tech company, Kaslan, whose sleek Apple-like gadgets have all but overtaken every household.

There’s an unavoidable metaphor there, insofar as “Child’s Play” itself feels like something of a defective robot, though its many detractors have likened it to an example of brand betrayal. Several creative forces behind the original series, including writer-producer Don Mancini and actors Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly, have voiced their disapproval. Fans of the real-deal Chucky movies, with their cheerfully low-rent effects and bawdy, impish humor, may well regard this slick new offering as a desecration masquerading as an upgrade.

READ MORE: ‘Child’s Play’ reboot gives Chucky a killer high-tech twist »

Which is not to say that this “Child’s Play” is entirely without its brutish, haphazard pleasures. Recasting the Chucky legend as an anti-technology satire is certainly a different if not exactly novel way into the material, updated here by Norwegian director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith.

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At the very least, the tech angle helps explain why an adolescent boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who’s notably a few years older than his 1988 counterpart, would want to play with such a doll in the first place. Chucky — an early birthday gift from Andy’s mom, Karen (Aubrey Plaza) — hails from Kaslan’s implausibly popular Buddi line, which means he comes equipped with his own handy smartphone app and can do a lot more than just walk, talk and open his big blue (sometimes red) eyes.

Like a Cabbage Patch Kid reared by HAL 9000 and Alexa, Chucky can digitally manipulate any and all Kaslan electronics, from internet connections to Roomba-style vacuum cleaners. He imitates behavior he witnesses in real life and on TV. He speaks in the voice of Mark Hamill, who gives Chucky’s earnest, affectionate questions just the right dead-toned inflections (“Will you be my buuuuuu-ddy?”). He plays back audio clips of conversations you only thought were private. He’s your little brother and Big Brother rolled into one.

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Aubrey Plaza and Gabriel Bateman in the movie "Child's Play."
(Eric Milner / Orion Pictures)

And of course, he eventually kills and kills and kills, thanks to a fed-up Vietnamese sweatshop worker who thought it’d be a fun prank to tamper with this particular Buddi doll and remove some of his internal safeguards. The funniest, most queasily effective part of “Child’s Play” is the opening stretch in which Andy plays and bonds with his new friend, only to gradually realize that something’s amiss. Maybe it’s Chucky’s habit of materializing from out of nowhere or his fascination with sharp objects. Or maybe it’s his obvious and thoroughly understandable dislike for Karen’s jerk boyfriend (David Lewis), who makes the mistake of bullying Chucky’s new best friend.

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From there, you can more or less guess how this “Child’s” plays out, at least up until a bonkers climax that brings at least two Stephen King classics to mind. Whatever cautionary tale about technological dependence the movie may be advancing gets thrown out the window as Chucky begins his killing spree, setting out to eliminate anyone who dares to mistreat Andy or tries to be his friend (which means basically everyone).

The protracted murder sequences are less scary than simply sadistic and unpleasant, some of them recalling the elaborate Rube Goldberg mechanisms of the “Final Destination” series. There is one memorably grisly image, but I’d lose face if I gave it away; suffice to say that things get a little upchucky. Where the original doll caused an awful lot of damage with a hammer, a knife and an electroshock machine, this one works wonders with a lawn mower and a table saw. Shred-shred, scream-scream, yawn-yawn.

Its controversial development history aside, “Child’s Play” is the latest in an endless trend of vintage horror franchises getting a millennial-skewing retrofit (the best of which is probably last year’s surprisingly adept “Halloween” sequel). The effort here, however, feels especially futile. The first movie may have awakened every viewer’s inner pediophobe 31 years ago, but devil dolls have long since saturated the contemporary horror lexicon, and not even Mancini’s Chucky corners the market anymore. Your appetite for this kind of homicidal puppet show might just as well be sated by “Annabelle Comes Home” and “Brahms: The Boy II,” both due out this summer. Even “Toy Story 4,” with its creepy Howdy Doody-style automatons, is offering a family-friendly alternative.

Being an AI with faulty circuitry, Chucky 2.0 doesn’t have the hilarious vulgarity or the single-minded murderous glee — the soul, if you will — that made Dourif’s Chucky such an unnervingly human abomination. Still, he’s arguably less of a cipher than the sleepy-sardonic Karen, who doesn’t seem to be channeling Plaza’s signature contempt so much as receiving it. Faring rather better is Brian Tyree Henry (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) as a police detective whose mom (an enjoyable Carlease Burke) conveniently lives down the hall from Andy and Chucky. He pumps much-needed life into a movie that devolves into another rote celebration of death.

Mark Hamill discusses taking on the voice role of killer doll Chucky in the 2019 remake of the 1988 cult classic.

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‘Child’s Play’

Rated: R, for bloody horror violence and language throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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Playing: In general release

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang


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