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The new Child’s Play is nonsensical and fun. Just don’t expect it to be like the old Child’s Play.

The new Chucky is a smart-home appliance from hell, because even tech dystopia has a silly side.

Orion Pictures
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The new Child’s Play reboot has amassed its share of critics, even well before its official June 21 release date. Those include the horror film franchise’s creator, who declined to be involved with the new production, as well as the many existing fans who have circulated hashtags like #NotMyChucky in the wake of the complicated backstage drama surrounding the new movie. Protective fans are also rejecting 2019’s Child’s Play on its existence alone. It’s a remake of the original 1988 film, jettisoning the many sequels, retconning the backstory of Chucky the killer doll, and swapping out Chucky’s longtime voice actor Brad Dourif for Mark Hamill.

Clearly, this movie won’t be for every die-hard Chucky fan. But for the rest of us, there’s still the fun of watching a maniacal piece of plastic running around wreaking havoc and carving up bodies. The new Child’s Play often feels like it came straight from the minds of tweens: It’s silly, even nigh nonsensical, full of flat stock characters, plot non sequiturs, and a hand-wave-y take on technological dystopia that never manages to get above eye roll levels of sincerity. But it’s also fun and funny, and if what you came for is a silly movie where dolls kill people, then, hey! You’re in luck!

The new Child’s Play is downright Goonies-esque. That’s mostly a good thing.

The new Child’s Play changes the backstory of Chucky, the evil doll of yore. He’s still an explicit callback to the “My Buddy” dolls of the ’80s, complete with cheesy overalls and a creepily chipper theme song. But where he once was an innocent receptacle for the soul of an evil serial killer, now Chucky’s a new smart-home appliance, called the “Buddi” system, designed to unite the best qualities of Alexa and Siri with a walking, talking doll companion for the whole family.

If this sounds distinctly Black Mirror-esque, don’t be misled; the new Child’s Play is mainly just here to have fun, not here to make you think. Which is why the movie promptly kicks off with a disgruntled sweatshop employee expertly recoding a Buddi doll to remove its “violence inhibitors” and fill the world with a little more sociopathic mayhem. This is why we need unions!

The doll (voiced by Hamill) winds up going home with Karen (Aubrey Plaza), a nebulous mom archetype who’s moved with her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman), to a nebulous new town for a nebulous new start. So far, this is all in line with the original Child’s Play film. But apart from a single implied glimpse of Andy’s dad and a once-happy family now broken up because of Reasons, we have no idea who these people are or what they’re doing in this musty apartment building, overseen by the world’s creepiest maintenance guy, or why Karen is now dating an equally one-dimensional jerk named Shane.

But none of this actually matters. These people only exist to feed the growing bloodlust of Andy’s Buddi doll, who renames himself “Chucky” and quickly gains a fixation with death, thanks to Andy and his new, Goonies-esque group of friends. Like all tweens, these kids have a touch of the hardcore misanthropic about them; they show up to watch horror films and teach Chucky stabbing moves, and Chucky, like a YouTube algorithm gone haywire, rapidly proceeds to take those to the extreme. Soon he’s torturing and killing the family cat; from there, it’s all downhill.

This sounds relatively formulaic, and it is. But it’s also frequently hilarious and well-directed by Norwegian filmmaker Lars Klevberg. In one shot, Chucky stares beatifically at a rack of steak knives as if they hold the keys to the universe, and in that moment, Klevberg almost manages to make you think Child’s Play is something more than mindless entertainment.

It does try its best to steal from smarter films, at least: The film is rife with meta-references to the Child’s Play franchise, and it winks at everything from 2001’s evil artificial intelligence Hal to Poltergeist, Halloween 3, and the viral horror game Five Nights at Freddy’s. (There’s an evil, Freddy-ish teddy bear variant of the “Buddi” doll, because of course there is.) Especially omnipresent, particularly in the film’s middle third, is a Goonies vibe from Andy and his friends, who embark on a series of sitcom-y hijinks in an attempt to dispose of Chucky’s first kill.

The hints of Steven Spielbergs 1980s action-adventure films frequently overshadow the Child’s Play elements, in fact. The franchise has always been aimed at horror fans who don’t take the genre too seriously; as its installments have worn on, Chucky’s wisecracking, glibly sociopathic persona has set the tone for the franchise. But because this new movie spends most of its time cutting between its cast of bland preteens and listless adults, it comes off as strangely innocent in contrast.

But let’s be clear: This is still a horror film! And that means there will be blood.

Child’s Play isn’t really scary, but it is a throwback to fun, old-school horror

For a movie that heavily features a cast of kids running around trying to save the town, Child’s Play actually has a surprising amount of gore. The first third of the movie is relatively benign, thoroughly in the vein of a horror comedy that’s trying to make nice with a broad audience. But when the murderin’ finally comes, it’s a full-on gorefest ... except not for too long before the movie returns to the Spielberg homage, culminating in a Gremlins-y department store rampage.

None of this sounds much like what one would expect from Child’s Play, but there sure is an evil doll killing people, at least. Hamill’s Chucky is happy to gab about his murderous obsession, and one gets the sense that instead of watching all the Child’s Play movies as homework, he watched all the Toy Story movies instead, taking notes on how to infuse diabolical madness into Woody’s obsession with his own Andy. The result is effective: Chucky inflects the banalities of talking doll-hood with sufficient creepiness from the start, and there’s something perversely satisfying in watching his increasingly stringy-haired progress toward full-on serial killer as he stalks and hunts down everyone Andy hates, followed by everyone Andy loves.

The main problem with 2019’s Child’s Play, beyond its stock characters and disjointed plot, is that it ultimately comes off as a bit indecisive; while there are a few scenes that seem to be born from an R-rated horror playbook, most of it feels like a fun frolic through PG-13 land. These tamer scenes don’t do much to build our love for the characters; the kids are all written flatly, so we don’t really care about their burgeoning bond, and a few awkward attempts at establishing friendship between Andy and his neighbor, Detective Mike (Brian Tyree Henry), feel more like an excuse to have someone with a gun on hand for the finale.

They also don’t do much to make Chucky feel more lethal or dangerous. The scariest aspect of this new Chucky is his ability to use technology to cleverly frame Andy in order to make him look like he has a mental illness, like an abusive spouse trying to alienate his friends and loved ones. Given that his murder victims are mostly incidental to the story, what little there is of it, when Chucky finally decides to kill people instead of gaslighting them, his sprees are mostly fun rather than scary.

If the story had ultimately leaned into its gleeful bloodlust for its final murder rampage, it would have been great. If, conversely, it had gone full-on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and embraced a doll-led psychological assault on poor Andy, that would have been awesome. Instead, the movie backs away from both of these options and builds up to a final act that feels especially lazy and uninspired. You already know its beats by heart, but they feel like they’ve been shipped in from a more family-friendly, action-infused subgenre.

If this Child’s Play were a bit smarter, maybe it could pull off what seems to be its vague desire for a hybridization of Spielberg and Wes Craven that feels both fresh and convincing. But it’s a little too in love with robot jokes and doll jokes, and maybe a little too in love with itself, for that. Instead, the rebooted Child’s Play blatantly doesn’t care about characterization, logic, allegory, or advancing the debate about “elevated” horror. It wants to make you laugh and get blood all over the set. And that’s fine — it satisfyingly accomplishes both goals.

But if you were hoping for a smarter, savvier, darker reinvention of the Child’s Play franchise — eh. You have my permission to stay home and wait for It Chapter Two instead.