Toy Story and Child’s Play were both defining films of my childhood. In very different ways, of course. Coming out in my prepubescent years, Toy Story was one of my first ‘favourite films’. I regularly rewatched my VHS – the first official video tape I ever owned – and fostered an abiding perfection for the colourful, adventurous film. Child’s Play, on the other hand, I didn’t see until I was well out of childhood (my parents were sticklers for classification advice), but the image of a cherubic/demonic doll wielding a steak knife imprinted itself in my consciousness years before I ever saw the film, thanks to occasionally-glimpsed trailers on rented videos.
Both film series are animated by the same basic premise – what if your toys were alive? They take it different directions, naturally. In the Toy Story films, the toys go on exciting adventures and contemplate questions of loneliness and mortality; in Child’s Play, Chucky simply sets about murdering as many people as possible. That juxtaposition has been cleverly exploited by the new Child’s Play’s marketing team, who’ve produced a set of posters where Chucky takes out his vengeance on hapless Toy Story figurines – a reference to Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play remake releasing on the same date as Toy Story 4.
They also share a degree of uncertainty regarding their continuation of their respective franchises. Like many Toy Story fans, I greeted the news of a Toy Story 4 with scepticism. Toy Story 3 ended the series with such comprehensive finality that it was hard to see the need for an additional instalment (beyond the obvious ‘make more money’ motivation). Child’s Play, meanwhile, is a reboot of a franchise that’s technically still going – creator Don Mancini and star Jennifer Tilly have both lamented the new film, in part because of it clashing with the Chucky TV series scheduled to release next year.
Toy Story 4 is certainly no disaster. Written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton – who has screenplay credits for all three preceding Toy Storys – the film furthers the adventures of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) through the introduction of a spork ‘toy’ Forky (Tony Hale) cobbled together at daycare orientation by the toys’ new owner, Bonnie. Forky’s characterisation is immediately appealing; born of trash, his entire mission is to throw himself into the nearest bin at the earliest opportunity. This sets in motion the events of the film, as Woody – recognising his owner’s devotion to Forky – finds himself swept up in yet another adventure when he follows Forky out the window of a moving campervan.
Everything you’d expect from a Toy Story film ensues. Woody encounters a suite of new toys – Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a pair of cuddly, adversarial teddy bears (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), the obligatory villain Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – and is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts). There’re life lessons to be learned, as well; given the age of the franchise, the screenwriters smartly ‘age up’ the subtext, with Woody’s arc analogous to a parent realising that their child’s no longer dependent upon them.
And yet, as much as I enjoyed Toy Story 4 – and would readily recommend it – something feels missing. Some magical spark that enlivened its predecessors. Maybe it’s the fact that it feels like ‘just another sequel’ in the wake of Toy Story 3. Maybe it’s the way the supporting cast from previous films are largely sidelined (with the exception of Buzz, who’s still largely relegated to milking an “inner voice” gag that gets old quickly). Maybe it’s that Woody’s sharp, unlikeable edges have been entirely sanded off at this point, making him a much less compelling protagonist.
It’s all of this, really. There are little details here and there that aren’t as refined as I’m accustomed to from Toy Story films. I love the new characters – I really do! – but seeing the likes of Jessie, T. Rex and Mr Potato Head spend their third act literally driving the campervan around to rescue Woody feels like a betrayal of the careful problem-solving evinced in earlier films. And while I don’t feel that children’s films are obligated to be morally perfect, it still feels odd that Gabby Gabby’s arc seems to reinforce that if you feel like no-one loves you because of a physical defect, you’re right and you need to remedy that defect before you can find love.
These niggles aside, I can’t deny that I enjoyed being reunited with characters from my childhood – or digressions like a fantasy scored to Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver theme, or a split-diopter shot (!). But if I’m being honest, I had way more fun with the Child’s Play reboot.
I admit to low expectations going into the new Chucky adventure. That’s in large part because of the film’s premise – updating Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) as a new ‘smart toy’, a so-called Buddi doll able to interface with your TV, self-driving car, audio system, drones, etc. On paper, that sounds like a pandering attempt to modernise a concept that doesn’t really need modernising, and I was worried about the prospect of an army of lethal, CGI-rendered Buddi dolls rather than the far more terrifying single-doll-with-a-steak-knife.
Boy, was I wrong.
Child’s Play works first and foremost because of its creators’ obvious affection for trashy ‘80s horror-comedy. The goofy earnestness of Poltergeist is the clearest inspiration, in that director Lars Klevberg the contradictions between Steven Spielberg’s schmaltz and Tobe Hooper’s schlock. Both of those filmmakers are explicitly referenced throughout. Specifically, the film is thick with references to E.T., whether its Chucky’s glowing finger as he controls smart devices or protagonist Andy’s (Gabriel Bateman’s) red hoodie. Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 – the apex of his gruesome horror-comedy approach – gets quite a bit of airtime, and Klevberg deftly mimics that film’s blend of gore and goofiness. There are other cheeky references here and there – whether to Leprechaun or the ‘Funzo’ episodes of The Simpsons – but the important thing is that Klevberg captures the gleeful meanness of the films he’s paying homage to rather than just referencing them.
It doesn’t hurt that the new conception of Chucky is way more interesting than the original Child’s Play’s doll. (I’ve yet to see any of the Child’s Play sequels, so I’m only speaking to the first film here.) In the 1988 film, Chucky is an inanimate doll possessed by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), which means that Chucky (a) is only moving when he’s in full stabby-stabby mode and (b) has a pretty thin motivation (he likes killing people and apparently wants to claim Andy’s body). Reimagined as a malfunctioning, walking, talking smart doll, he’s able to be creepy all the time and is now motivated by a jilted-stalker sort of obsession with Andy.
Even the evil-Alexa stuff is killer. Self-driving cars are scary, especially when they’re controlled by an evil doll. The notion of drones – essentially commercial versions of flying murderbots – swooping through the suburbs is an unnerving enough concept; strap fucking razorblades to their propellers and you’ve got a memorable horror-trash combo. I had a smile on my face through Child’s Play way more often than I did through Toy Story 4, which speaks to how much fun this film is. If you have any fondness for ‘80s horror, make it a priority.