No movie monster has bounced back more heartily than Chucky. The string of outlandish sequels released since 1988’s “Child’s Play” have found a half-dozen ways for the possessed doll to return for more evil pursuits. The new “Child’s Play” reboot finds one more, with a bigger budget and more audacious satire, but rarely has a movie begged to shed the baggage of its past more than this one. Rather than paying tribute to the original concept, director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith scribble over Don Mancini’s franchise by turning Chucky into a robot menace — think HAL 9000 with a knife — which raises the question of why they needed to mess with a series that has maintained its own zany rhythms for 30 years.
Say what you will about the “Chucky” movies, but as recently as 2017’s “Cult of Chucky,” Mancini maintained a consistent B-movie inspiration that kept the series in a campy tradition closer to Ed Wood than John Carpenter. The new “Child’s Play” ignores that history in favor of a bigger budget and grander ideas. But even as the cartoonish horror-comedy occasionally lands some playful jabs at modern technology, this oddball blend of ’80s nostalgia and contemporary humor never quite lands the smart-scary balance in its sights.
As bored single mom Karen, the ever-endearing Aubrey Plaza points to the cocky agenda in play, but the Chucky story still belongs to Andy (Gabriel Bateman), the energetic adolescent who’s gifted the doll on his birthday. The son to a very young single mother (“I had a productive sweet 16,” Plaza tells a co-worker), Andy’s given the latest edition of a “Buddi,” a high-tech product equal parts Alexa and Furby, which follows him around the house and begs to be his friend. As the pair just moved into town and Andy lacks any friends, this seems like a reasonable enough gesture, but the malfunctioning toy immediately reeks of danger. “Can you be less creepy?” Andy asks his new animatronic pal, as he peers at the kid after dark with glowing blue eyes. But Chucky (voiced with hyperbolic glee by Mark Hamill) has been designed to give Andy everything he wants, and for a lonely kid who resents his mom and her intrusive new boyfriend (David Lewis), that sort of wish-fulfillment can have deadly consequences.
Playing off audience expectations, “Child’s Play” wastes no time establishing the central threat, tossing out the supernatural premise of the original series in favor of a disgruntled Vietnamese sweat shop worker (a fleeting but irksome stereotype) who takes the filters off the toy’s A.I. So it’s clear that Chucky will go bad — it’s just a question of when, and how. But the movie’s first act operates as an extended “E.T.” homage, as Andy bonds with the toy and attracts a couple of neighborhood friends in the process. That only makes Chucky more invested in keeping Andy happy, and all it takes is the opportunity to watch a slasher movie with his owner for him to grasp the concept of a knife. Then it’s off to the bloody races.
Because Chucky can plug into the internet, his ability to stalk his prey through various technological devices — television, smartphones, and even a self-driving car come into play — yields some clever showdowns. But “Child’s Play” is too hokey to generate any real scares, and too obvious for its satire to leave much of a mark. The original Andy (played by Alex Vincent across 30 years in one of the stranger actor-aging-with-character feats in film history) developed a sprawling love-hate relationship with the doll as it continued to obsess over him. Bateman’s version of Andy (the actor, who has already appeared in “Lights Out” and “Annabelle,” seems poised to mature into a genuine horror movie star), simply grows frustrated and then frantic as Chucky goes from eerie to maniacal right on schedule.
That might be enough if Plaza were given her due, and the actress invites laughter from the moment she’s seen rolling her eyes at the neighborhood toy store where she works. But “Child’s Play” lacks the wry revisionist approach to the genre seen in Jeff Baena’s superb zombie comedy “Life After Beth,” which operated on the same wavelength as Plaza’s ironic screen presence. The new movie shunts her to the side for no good reason, and also underutilizes a local detective played by Brian Tyree Henry whose mother lives in the same building as Karen and Andy. Henry, however, somehow manages to elevate everything in his career to date, and his grumbling about “a bunch of millennials” when passing Andy and his friends on the street is one of the movie’s most satisfying moments.
Hamill certainly delivers his best voice acting since he played the Joker on “Batman: The Animated Series,” but his icy, calculated villain has nothing on the shrieking lunatic first brought to life by Brad Dourif. The movie has a handful of decent kills for horror aficionados keeping track, including a lawn-mower incident with some clever choreography, but the chaotic finale — featuring an army of Chuckys overtaking an entire store of eager shoppers — devolves into a chaotic mess (the “Toy Story” franchise has tapped into the fear of animated objects with greater mileage).
Nevertheless, Klevberg (whose Norwegian short “Polaroid” showed his potential to generate solid jump-scares, and generated a Weinstein-produced feature that has yet to come out) clearly has plenty of sturdy reference points. Once the “E.T.” homage falls away, “Child’s Play” seems keen on tapping “Goonies” as Andy and his new friends (Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio) team up to take down Chucky’s maniacal scheme. Bear McCreary’s whimsical score outshines the more routine homage in play, and the movie’s polished look may be the finest salute to the ‘80s aesthetic since the first season of “Stranger Things.” But the elegant homage is out of step with the hokey material, and unlike Alexandre Aja’s superb “Piranha 3D,” Klevberg’s audacious vision is simply out of sync with the silliness at the center of the story.
Early on, one character observing Chucky’s ability to learn from his surroundings does come close to breaking the fourth wall: “This is how every robot apocalypse movie begins,” she says. But “Child’s Play” is less self-aware than rote, and even its critical gaze feels half-baked. From the “Unfriended” series to “Like Me,” genre movies about the eeriness of the online era have gone deeper, scarier, and had more fun with the creative possibilities that 21st century technology provide. (Jim Jarmusch’s recent “Dead Don’t Die” might be blunt in its allegories, but the image of zombies carrying functional cell phones is more potent than anything Klevberg offers up.) “Child’s Play” at once repudiates Mancini’s franchise by attempting to make it bigger and bolder while falling back on ingredients we’ve seen before, and seen better. While it sets out to skewer the algorithms that could destroy the world, the remake hews to a mechanical formula — and winds up a product of the same tendencies it’s trying to indict.
“Child Play” opens June 21, 2019.