CHILD’S PLAY

Producer: Seth Graham-Smith and David Katzenberg
Director: Lars Klevberg
Writer: Tyler Burton Smith
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Gabriel Bateman, Tim Matheson, Carlease Burke, Marlon Kazadi, Ty Consiglio, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redecop, David Lewis, and Mark Hamill
Studio: Orion Pictures

C+

A sort-of remake of the 1988 movie about Chucky, the possessed, homicidal doll that inaugurated a bargain-basement franchise extending to half a dozen sequels. The new “Child’s Play” isn’t really a very good movie, but it’s better than you’d expect, approaching its goofy horror premise with the same sort of gleeful semi-sadism that marked the “Gremlins” pictures (especially Joe Dante’s “Gremlins 2”) and more recently could be felt in Michael Dougherty’s 2015 movie about the malevolent reverse Santa, “Krampus.”

In the earlier version of the tale, Chucky was just a rather ugly pull-string Good Guys doll into which a dying serial killer transferred his soul; his ultimate purpose was to transfer his soul into the six-year old boy who owned the doll, and was suspected of the mayhem it committed.

The whole possession scenario is jettisoned in this remake from writer Tyler Burton Smith and director Laus Klevberg, which the franchise’s long-time auteur Don Mancini had nothing to do with (he’s moving on with the old franchise separately). Here Chucky is a Buddi, not merely a doll but a cutting-edge electronic device that can take charge of all such systems for the human controller with whom it has bonded, learning its behavior through advanced artificial intelligence. The dolls, manufactured by a firm headed by a slick entrepreneur named Kaslan (Tim Matheson), are operated by chips fitted with all sorts of safety protocols to prevent malfunctioning.

Unfortunately, Chucky is a defective Buddi, deliberately sabotaged by an assembly line worker in a Vietnamese factory who’s just been fired. He negates all the precautionary limitations on it before boxing it up and then committing suicide.

So Chucky reaches the U.S. market and is sold, but returned to the store where it was purchased when it exhibits strange behavior. Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza), a clerk at the place, persuades her boss to let her have it as a birthday present for her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who’s about twice as old this time around (also hard-of-hearing and desperately bored in their new apartment). The boy bonds with it, and it develops an unnervingly persistent, virtually proprietary, attachment to the kid. Chucky also learns completely inappropriate behavior by watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” along with Andy and his new friends Pugg (Ty Consiglio), Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Omar (Marlon Kazadi).

Leatherface’s homicidal tendencies are adopted by Chucky when Andy is mistreated by his mother’s nasty (and, of course, married) boyfriend Shane (David Lewis). The doll exhibits his role as the kid’s “best friend” and protector by offing Shane as he mounts a ladder to put up a string of Christmas lights on his house. Other lawn ornaments and a conveniently-situated wood chopper are also involved in the grisly but cartoonish sequence.

Andy is aghast when he learns what Chucky has done—especially when he sees the souvenir of the kill the doll presents him with—but his attempts to rid himself of Chucky (and that souvenir) naturally fail, and Chucky continues his campaign against anyone he perceives as dangerous to his friendship with the boy. Among these are the building janitor Gabe (Trent Redecap), who not only meddles with Chucky’s innards (hoping to make a tidy profit on resale) but spies on Karen, and kindly neighbor Doreen (Carleare Burke), who has the temerity to blithely refer to Andy as her best friend. Once again, their deaths are staged in elaborately violent set-pieces designed to coax laughs as well as shrieks. Doreen, moreover, is the mother of Mike (Brian Tyree Henry), the cop who comes to suspect that Andy is the perpetrator.

The individual deaths, however, are but prelude to the general mayhem Chucky creates back at the store where Karen works during a launching party for Buddi 2.0. There Andy must rescue his mother from Chucky’s clutches. Luckily he has some help from his teen friends, and also—eventually—Mike.

The adults in the cast are good enough—Plaza is fine as the slightly dingbatty Karen, and Henry is his customary genial self as the cop who finds things are going very wrong in his precinct. But it’s the younger performers who shine, especially the likable Bateman, who handles the considerable demands of the lead with the aplomb of someone older—and, most importantly, without being grating. The effects—including Chucky—are agreeably cheesy, and if Mark Hamill doesn’t capture quite the same degree of snide malevolence that Brad Dourif brought to the voice of the doll, he manages a nicely creepy vibe. The technical crew give the whole business a garish look that’s appropriate to the over-the-top material.

This new “Child’s Play” is no less silly or gruesome than its 1988 predecessor, but its ghoulish sense of humor puts it a cut above most recent slasher flicks. If one wants to see a really sinister, if opaque, “Child’s Play,” though, check out Sidney Lumet’s totally unrelated film from 1972 starring James Mason, in one of his best performances (which is saying a lot). It doesn’t make a lot more sense than this one, but carries dark undercurrents that are hard to shake.