Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Child’s Play’ Never Colors Outside the Lines

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Child’s Play is a reboot of a franchise whose last installment was Cult of Chucky in 2017. All sequels are filmed deals which means surely all reboots are filmed mortgage restructures. Either way, Lars Klevberg’s attempt to start over is a mediocre investment at best.

Klevberg has forgone the supernatural and instead opted for the technocrat’s nightmare. No longer a doll possessed by the demon of a serial killer due to an impromptu voodoo ceremony to avoid being caught. Chucky is now a robotic doll, Buddi, who’s simply had his safeguards turned off. 

Buddi is manufactured in a Vietnamese sweatshop. One of the safety inspectors in charge of making sure Buddi’s commands are secured is caught sleeping on the job. The floor manager berates him, hits him, and fires him, but only after he’s finished with the doll he’s working on. 

In a pique of rage, the worker turns off all the doll’s safeguards. Including, and this is my favorite, his “violence inhibitors”. The man then jumps off the top of the warehouse onto the manager’s car. Buddi is meant to be the movie’s version of the Amazon Echo Alexa-primarily for kids.

Issac Azmov penned the three laws of robotics. These laws stated, simply, that a robot could not harm a human either through direct or indirect action. Poor Azmov never foresaw late-stage capitalism. 

Smith combines Google and Microsoft and gives us Kaslan. A seemingly ubiquitous tech conglomerate who have managed to introduce self-driving cars, automated environmental controls for your home, seemingly unlimited bandwidth and data for cell phones-all connected via Buddi. Ironically the one thing Kaslan doesn’t seem to have is an online marketplace where you can purchase these items.

But I digress; Karen (Aubrey Plaza) works at the return counter of Zed Mart. A customer returns the malfunctioning Buddi doll and so she takes it home to her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman) as a present.  Let the blood-soaked mayhem begin.

Except it doesn’t. Since Chucky isn’t the soul of a homicidal mad man trapped inside a doll’s body, Klevberg and Smith take their time. We watch as Andy programs the doll, the glitches acting as a portent of terror. Too bad it’s mostly tedious.

Had Child’s Play not been a reboot, but an original property of its own, it might have been something interesting. Smith’s script clearly has thoughts about class, American consumerism, and our reliance on technology. As evidenced by his naming the department store where Karen works Zed Mart. Zed Mart is a popular grocery mart in China. 

Smith’s script seems shoehorned into being a Chucky movie when it has no real desire to be one. All the things that make a Chucky movie a Chucky movie are either noticeably absent or shoehorned in by obligation.

Take the Buddi’s name, Chucky. While Andy is programming the doll the Buddi asks him what his name is. Andy smiles and says “How about Han Solo?” The doll starts to repeat the name but glitches and says, “Did you say Chucky?” I get it. It’s a joke. But it’s a joke that isn’t really a joke. 

By removing Chucky, the character, they’ve removed the motivation for Chucky. So they replace it with an artificial intelligence’s jealousy and sincere desire to be friends with Andy. The doll voiced by Mark Hamill is unreservedly creepy. Hamill is a tremendous voice actor and his Chucky is halting somewhat tragic character to add to his vast repertoire. 

But what makes Chucky works is Hamill. The script can’t seem to make up its mind if Chucky wants to kill because people hurt Andy or because Andy has hurt him. It’s feasible that the movie could mean it to be part of Chucky’s trajectory. A Buddi is programmed to learn so why not have him learn about envy?

Chucky’s victims include Karen’s abusive married boyfriend, the stock creepy perverted building superintendent, and a little old lady who lives down the hall, Doreen (Carlease Burke). She is the mother of Detective Mike Norris (Bryan Tyree Henry). 

Slasher movies and horror movies operate on a fundamentalist moral code. Drinkers, stoners, and fornicators are the primary victims. Often times they are teenagers. But Klevberg and Smith have decided to make the victims unrepentantly evil and their deaths almost karmically gory.

Until we get to Doreen. Doreen dies because Chucky overhears her saying “Andy is my new best friend.” Her death is not as gory but there is a sense of cruelness to it that left me uneasy.

Of course, after Doreen, it becomes a battle royale at Zed Mart as Kaslan unveils a Buddi version 2.0. Time and time again I could feel a different movie wanting to burst free. Instead, I had to sit there and watch a boy and a doll with no personality and a cat named Mickey Rooney.

The fact that in 2019 Andy, who wears a single hearing aid for no discernable reason, has a cat named Mickey Rooney defies logic. The only thing more absurd than Mickey Rooney the cat is the hearing aid Andy wears. As a man who wears two hearing aids myself, I know a thing or two about them.

I honestly have no idea why they made the decision to have Andy be hard of hearing. It never comes up in any meaningful way. At no point in time does Andy or his mother, behave as if they have even so much as googled “hearing aids”. At one point Plaza’s Karen remarks how she is saving up money to replace Andy’s hearing aid. She follows that up by looking out the window into the rainy night and seeing two kids under a streetlamp and tells Andy to go make some friends.

Setting aside that they are new to the neighborhood, it’s raining, it’s at night, and they are in Chicago, no mother would send a child with hearing aids into the rain for any reason. He watches television without subtitles. His hearing aid whistles so he takes it off and just puts it in his pocket. 

Idiotic decisions like these detract from little moments of brilliance. Falyn (Beatrice Kitos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), two kids from the building, befriends Andy and Chucky. One night they watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Chucky sees the violence and the gore but also sees Andy and his friends laughing at it.

Grabbing a knife from the kitchen he returns scaring the kids. He’s confused as to why they seem so scared and angry. It’s a twisted and funny moment as it takes the overblown reactions to violence in media and mixes it with Chucky’s very real childlike innocence. 

Klevberg isn’t shy about taking chances or elbowing the audience in the ribs with a knowing wink. After Chucky kills Karen’s boyfriend he leaves his freshly skinned face on watermelon in Andy’s room to find as a present. Frantic Andy, Pugg, and Falyn, wrap the head in wrapping paper to throw away.

What follows is straight out Hitchcock. Andy is forced to give the head to Doreen as a gift. Andy has to get the head back, figure out what to do with Chucky, all while trying not to draw the suspicions of the police detective. Unfortunately as ambitious as Klevberg and Smith are they don’t quite hit the mark.

The set up is wicked and fun but the payoff is predictable and convenient. Child’s Play constantly falls short. The result is a humdrum rhythm which is pervasive throughout the film. 

Sad, because Brendan Uegama, who shot Child’s Play, is doing his level best to carry the film. Horror movies are dingy, often underlit affairs, drowning the film in tedious confusion. But Uegama turns Child’s Play into a gorgeous warmly lit urban nightmare filled with stark imagery.

Child’s Play isn’t awful but it does seem unnecessary and shockingly tepid compared to its predecessors. I found myself impressed with the look and style of the film but little else. While the film has wit and talent- it lacks the sheer audacious wackiness of the franchise it’s trying, oh so hard, to reboot. 

Image courtesy of United Artists Releasing

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