Chucky in 2019: Empathizing with a Murderous Doll
How ‘Child’s Play’ turns a horror icon into a tragic, emotionally engaging character.
The controversial reboot of the Child’s Play franchise is out now in theaters. Rebooting an ongoing franchise without the creators of the original is problematic, but when the result is a fun slasher like Child’s Play (2019), it’s hard to protest. Both versions of the story are vastly different, making it easy to accept them coexisting in the industry. One of the biggest differences in the two versions are the respective interpretations of franchise antagonist, Chucky.
In Tom Holland’s Child’s Play (1988), serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif, who also voices Chucky) inhabits a “Good Guy” doll through voodoo before he dies in a shootout. When the possessed doll winds up in the hands of six-year-old Andy Barclay, people around him begin to die. It’s a chilling and suspenseful film, one that holds up over three decades past. There’s no denying that Dourif and series creator Don Mancini created a lasting horror icon — Chucky is as popular as blade-wielding killers come. Yet, the character of Chucky is one-note, evil from the opening scene to the end credits. So how do you update the character for modern audiences?
Well, if you’re director Lars Klevberg and screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith, you create a Chucky that isn’t so much evil as misunderstood. In the new Child’s Play (2019), Mark Hamill voices Chucky, an A.I. “Buddi” doll with smart device capabilities. Only, this Buddi doll has its safety protocols (such as a violence inhibitor) deactivated. It’s only slightly less ridiculous than voodoo magic, but it creates one of the most compelling character arcs I’ve seen in a horror villain. ’88 Chucky may be a scarier horror villain, but ’19 Chucky is a better character.
“His way of becoming sympathetic — that was something I really wanted to look into. I viewed the story as a Greek tragedy [for] Chucky…” — Lars Klevberg
In an interview with Collider, Klevberg stated that he viewed the Child’s Play script as a Greek tragedy, at least for Chucky. Indeed, Chucky goes through some major changes throughout the course of the film. As a Buddi doll, he is programmed to be a best friend to his owner, thirteen-year-old Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman). It’s Chucky’s sole purpose in life.
It’s the way Chucky goes about securing that friendship that makes him “evil.” Much like the character of Drax from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, Chucky sees everything at surface level. When Andy stabs a cutting board with a kitchen knife with a grin, Chucky mimics the motion. When Andy and his friends laugh at a gory horror film, Chucky equates killing and violence with joy. Violence becomes his means to an end.
“He was really like an innocent child, really, just learning from what goes around him.” — Mark Hamill, Den of Geek
Therefore, when the family cat scratches Andy, or when Andy complains about his mother’s boyfriend’s cruel behavior, Chucky dispatches them so they can’t hurt his friend anymore. And when Andy is disgusted by Chucky’s actions, Chucky doesn’t understand why. In his mind, he is doing what is necessary to protect Andy. When Andy pulls away, Chucky only tries harder to keep their friendship intact.
It’s heartbreaking to watch Chucky grapple with rejection. When Andy and his friends dismantle him in the second act of the film, Chucky’s pleas for mercy brought tears to my eyes. It’s the turning point of the film, inciting a more manipulative and bold Chucky in the back half of the film. Even when Chucky goes insane trying to reel Andy back to him, there is a sadness present in his actions. His sole purpose, his entire existence, has been dedicated to Andy. In the end, it literally destroys him. It’s a beautifully realized character arc, one you rarely see in a horror film.
In the ’88 film, Chucky doesn’t have an arc. He shows no growth or change throughout the film, which suits that particular film well. However, the remake is less focused on scares and more focused on creating a tragic story for its “antagonist.” We are allowed to watch Chucky grow into the killer. We know its coming, but seeing where his intentions lie makes it a challenging watch. He is endearing from the beginning, and his relationship with Andy, which the script smartly spends a lot of time on, is the beating heart of the film.
I would never discredit what Don Mancini and Brad Dourif did in the 1988 film and the proceeding six films. The original Chucky is a villain that earns a spot in Horror’s Hall of Fame. Yet, I’ve never felt any kind of emotional connection to him. When Dourif’s Chucky dies at the end of each film, I only ever feel relief. Chucky ‘19’s demise came with a sense of relief, certainly, but it was joined by a sense of sorrow.
To put it simply, ’88 Chucky sends chills down my spine.
’19 Chucky broke my heart.