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Toy Story 4 / Child’s Play (2019)

Yes, I saw these two movies back-to-back. As one correspondent observed, it was like “going from ‘All my toys are precious and deserve love,’ to ‘Maybe we lock them all in the closet tonight.'” It’s weird enough that these two movies came out in the same weekend, and it certainly didn’t help that the producers of Child’s Play (2019) insisted on connecting the two films by way of a tasteless, grotesque ad campaign.

I’m a little disappointed that Pixar never clapped back, but maybe that would have been giving the ad campaign more attention than it deserved. Also, I expect that the execs at Disney and Pixar are smart enough to weigh “punching up” against “punching down”. I digress.

Here we have two movies that nobody really asked for. The Toy Story trilogy ended on a beautifully perfect note, with each individual film worthy to be listed among the greatest animated films of all time. Why mess with perfection, and why focus on Andy’s toys without Andy?

Elsewhere, the Orion Pictures imprint was revived by MGM in 2014, and they’ve been desperate for a tentpole franchise ever since. Thus they turned to the first Child’s Play movie — the only one in the series they actually own — and set to developing a cinematic reboot. This despite the fact that the original franchise was releasing new (DTV) movies as recently as 2017, and series creator Don Mancini is currently developing a TV series with the participation of recurring franchise star Brad Dourif. Little wonder that Mancini and Dourif have both been very explicit in withholding their blessing from the cinematic reboot.

Yet both movies still had reason to hope. In the case of Toy Story 4… well, it’s been quite some time since The Good Dinosaur. Pixar has been on an upswing lately, so why make a desperation move like this? Pixar and Disney — to say nothing of the cast, the crew, and those who grew up with these movies — have always been supremely protective of the franchise, so why would they take a risk like this unless it was for a story worth telling?

As for Child’s Play (2019), I had two reasons to go see this one. The first, of course, was Mark Hamill. Who better to take over Brad Dourif’s signature role than such an iconic voice actor as Mark Hamill? Plus, it’s a homicidal doll being voiced by the definitive voice of The Joker — you’re goddamn right I’m there for it.

The second big reason was Bear McCreary. He’s been my favorite composer since “Battlestar Galactica”, and now I have the perfect movie soundtrack to show why. McCreary has always shown a quirky and inventive sensibility like no other composer could produce, and it’s on full display here. McCreary devised a soundtrack comprised of toy pianos, otomatones, tiny xylophones… basically, you know how Jimmy Fallon will occasionally play cover versions of songs with grade school instruments? Imagine if somebody made that into a horror soundtrack. It seems like such a blindingly obvious way to go for this movie, but there’s nobody else who could make it work like Bear McCreary did here.

Speaking of which, Randy Newman returned to provide the music for Toy Story 4. Of course the soundtrack is drenched in nostalgia, with liberal use of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” to get us in the proper childhood mindset. Even so, I hope the score gets all due credit for making us cry when the characters are crying. Pixar knows how to frame every shot for maximum emotional impact, the score is a huge part of that, and this movie is no exception.

Anyway, Toy Story 4 picks up when Bonnie (the girl at the end of the third movie, voiced by Madeleine McGraw) is just about to start kindergarten. Alone in a new environment, without her toys to keep her company, she makes a new toy out of a plastic spork and random bits of crafting supplies. Improbably, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life as a toy just like Woody and company, but considerably more confused. Because Forky was made specifically to be a disposable eating utensil, he needs to be taught all about what it means to be a toy and why he means so much to Bonnie.

If you’re wondering what Woody has to do with all of this… well, that’s part of the point. Woody has fallen out of favor since he and his friends were handed off to Bonnie, and he’s no longer the alpha of the playroom. He can’t be there for Bonnie like he could with Andy, and he doesn’t mean nearly as much to her, but Woody will still go to hell and back for Bonnie’s happiness because he doesn’t have much of anything else.

Elsewhere (don’t ask how, it’s a long story), Woody reconnects with Bo Peep (voiced once again by Annie Potts). After getting shuttled around from one hand to another, Bo Peep wound up as a kind of lost toy, jumping from one playground to another so she can look after other vagrant toys and play with all manner of passing children. As opposed to Woody, who’s only ever connected himself to one kid at a time.

Then we have Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks. An antique doll roughly as old as Woody himself, she’s in desperate need to be there for a child like Woody has always been. And for that, she needs a replacement voice box exactly like Woody has. Yeah, she’s the de facto villain of the piece. We’ll come back to that.

Speaking of creepy villainous dolls, Chucky is considerably different in the reboot. No longer the product of appropriated fugazi voodoo magic (and thank God for that), Chucky is now a creepy AI-controlled doll. More specifically, Chucky was produced by a disgruntled sweatshop worker who disabled all the security measures on this particular doll before killing himself.

It’s immediately obvious out of the box that Chucky is a broken doll. In fact, Chucky chooses his own name in one of many contrived efforts at beating the reboot into line with the source material. Still, it’s just as obvious that Chucky only wants what’s best for his owner (Andy, played by Gabriel Bateman, late of Annabelle and Lights Out). Chucky desperately wants to make Andy happy, though that means sifting through the wild mood swings and hyperbolic statements of a 13-year-old boy. So when Andy grouses about his irate cat or his mother’s asshole boyfriend (the mother is played by Aubrey Plaza and the asshole boyfriend is played by David Lewis), Chucky doesn’t have the programming to parse out certain nuances and the, uh… perceived problems are removed with extreme prejudice.

At their heart and core, both movies are about toys and children. More than that, it’s about how kids at such a confused and vulnerable time need friends and companions to grow and make new memories. Even if the friend is only cloth and plastic, that’s still an improvement over the screens that are typically raising kids nowadays. And of course, these toys were made for the specific purpose of being there for children, thus both movies are set up for certain existentialist themes with regards to life, death, the purpose of both, and so on.

All of this is standard material for the Toy Story franchise, and a huge part of why those movies are so timeless. That said, Bonnie is starting kindergarten. It’s a prominent threshold, sure, and a stressful time for any kid who hasn’t really figured out how to make friends quickly. Even so, she still appears to be a remarkably healthy and normal kid raised by two happily married parents. For that matter, Andy before her appeared to be a perfectly well-adjusted kid in a loving family. Sure, Andy and his sister were apparently raised by a single mom, but that never seemed to be a problem. Judging from the size and state of Andy’s house, they seemed to be getting by just fine.

Wait a minute, did WoodChuck — I mean, did Woody and Chucky both have kids named Andy? That’s a little creepy to be a coincidence.

Anyway, Chucky’s Andy has to wear a hearing aid because he’s partially deaf. He just moved into a crappy run-down apartment, he doesn’t know any local kids his age, and his dad ran out on him and his mom, so now his mother is dating the latest in a long line of drunken abusive assholes while she’s working double-shifts at a crappy customer service job. With all due respect, I’m a lot more emotionally invested in the kid who’s dealing with so many legitimate problems — God knows he could really use a friend.

Because Andy is partially deaf and Chucky has a habit of glitching (in benign ways, at first), the both of them are defective in their own ways and they see that in each other. Compare that to the Bonnie/Forky attachment, in which Bonnie is single-mindedly attached to this one homemade toy (and refuses to make another one) for no adequately explained reason while Forky spends half the movie actively trying to abandon her and get thrown out with the garbage. Obviously, the former relationship is going to be more potent because it’s built on a more solid and tangible foundation.

Even so, the Bonnie/Forky relationship is built on the toy/human dynamic that’s been established over three other movies and almost 25 years. Plus, Forky is a much deeper character, explored with a level of pathos and wit that Chucky never even aspires to. Of course, it also helps that the concept of Forky is something diabolically clever that nobody outside of Pixar ever could have dreamed of, while “rogue killer AI” has been seen in hundreds of other sci-fi movies to date. (One character even lampshades this.)

Incidentally, the horror slasher is way more effective as a slasher than a horror. While there are a few halfway decent gore effects to be found here, the kills were sadly uninspired and the horror was heavily reliant on jump scares. Perhaps more importantly, this is a movie that tries to present cartoonishly wretched cannon fodder for Chucky to kill off, even as the filmmakers try to make Andy and his mother into authentic and plausible people for the sake of earnest and intellectual discussion about the proliferation of AI. I get that the filmmakers are chafing against the campy source material, but trying to balance that with the more heady sci-fi approach simply isn’t working.

What’s interesting is that there’s a crucial, highly relevant question here: If autonomous AI is broken, corrupted, defective, or (in this case) tampered with, and then that AI kills someone, who’s responsible? The consumer who bought the machine? Whomever is operating the defective machine at the time? The manufacturer? The machine itself? Whomever tampered with the machine? It’s a surprisingly thorny question, and of course the filmmakers don’t have time to do anything more than skirt around the issue.

That said, it’s fascinating how the filmmakers present Chucky as an innocent in all of this. He’s not inherently a monster, simply corrupted and mistreated by the world around him, made into a demon by his own good intentions. Gabby Gabby of Toy Story 4 has the inverse problem.

It’s frustrating how Gabby is framed as the villain of the movie. Yes, she’s seductive in a way and manipulative as all hell, but as the film unfolds, we can plainly see she’s nowhere near as ruthless as she first appears. It’s entirely possible for Gabby to get what she wants without anyone getting terribly hurt, and she’s happy to use those methods. And lest we forget, all she really wants is to be some child’s toy. She deeply and sincerely wants to play with some kid and help create happy memories with them.

In her own way, Gabby is made from all the same stuff that Woody is. Moreover, if you sit down and write out all the things that Gabby actually does in the film, none of her actions are really all that villainous on paper. Yet the film needed an antagonist to drive up the stakes and power us through the second act, so here we are.

In fact, both movies have kind of a “supporting character” problem. Toy Story 4 has Ducky and Bunny, two annoying and worthless plush dolls redeemed only by the well-oiled comedic interplay between Key and Peele. We’ve also got Duke Caboom, a Canadian stuntman toy who’s more effective as a plot device than a character. It doesn’t help that he’s voiced by Keanu Reeves — I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but his voice was never his strongest feature as an actor.

While Woody, Forky, and Bo Peep are all wonderful characters making strong and memorable appearances here, the other denizens of the Andy/Bonnie toy collection don’t fare nearly as well. Even Buzz gets stuck with a cloying “listen to your conscience” schtick that would’ve completely broken the character if Pixar and Tim Allen weren’t so incredibly great at what they do. As for Jessie, Rex, Slinky, Ham, the Potato Heads, and all the rest, they never even leave the RV where most of this takes place. Aside from a bit of RV sabotage in the third act, the toys spend most of the movie wringing their hands and contributing absolutely nothing.

Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that so many of the voice actors are getting on in years. Joan Cusack sounds 20 years too old to be voicing Jessie, Mr. Potato Head only gets something like two lines (both archival recordings from the late Don Rickles), and the filmmakers have rightly been very hesitant in using Slinky since Jim Varney passed on.

Meanwhile, Child’s Play barely features any memorable supporting characters at all. I’ve already commented a bit on David Lewis and Trent Redekop, both playing such cartoonishly godawful scumbags that they primarily exist to be slain for our amusement. We’ve also got Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio as a couple of neighborhood kids who become Andy’s new friends and eventual comrades-in-arms. The filmmakers were clearly going for a kind of Amblin-esque vibe that might have worked if the characters had been given enough screen time and development to really stick. As it is, they’re just barely passable comic relief. Rounding out the supporting cast are Brian Tyree Henry as a neighborhood cop and Tim Matheson as the voice of Chucky’s corporate overlords, both of whom look like they just wanted to get through the shoot and cash in their checks.

But then we have Gabriel Bateman, who completely and totally sells every moment as the heart and soul of this movie. Aubrey Plaza admittedly looks out of place, but that actually kinda works here — it helps to sell the notion that this young woman is in way over her head and she doesn’t really know how to be the parent that her son needs. And of course Mark Hamill is phenomenal.

Then we have the plot issues. Toy Story 4 has some issues with predictability, as it’s blindingly and painfully obvious where the film is going and you’ll know how it all ends by the hour-mark. That doesn’t make it any more heartbreaking when it happens, of course, but still. As for Child’s Play, it’s a slasher movie remake centered around the billionth rogue AI in cinematic history — predictability was always a given. Even so, I was disappointed with all the plot holes and improbabilities that the filmmakers resorted to. Ridiculous.

On a couple of miscellaneous notes, I was disappointed to find that Pixar didn’t attach an animated short to Toy Story 4, so I guess the “Best Animated Short Film” category is wide open this year. Also, Child’s Play included a cute little shout-out to a certain other Orion Pictures property from the late ’80s. Your mileage may vary, but I thought it was sweet.

Ultimately, Toy Story 4 is a perfectly worthy epilogue to the Toy Story franchise. The trilogy certainly wouldn’t have been worse without it, but the movie expands on so many timeless franchise themes in profound ways. Plus, it’s got all the laughs, heartbreak, phenomenal animation, and rock-solid voice acting you’d expect from a Pixar movie. Definitely check it out.

As for Child’s Play (2019), it’s genuinely frustrating how the movie came so close. We’ve got Gabriel Bateman, Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Bear McCreary, and first-time director Lars Klevberg (no, I’m not counting Polaroid and we’re not gonna go there) all giving this project way more effort than it probably deserved. That counts for a great deal, but it’s still not enough.

The supporting turns are weak, the filmmakers don’t bring enough for a fresh take on the “rogue AI” angle, and the movie needed at least another 15 minutes of runtime or so to get the plot and character development where they needed to be. Still, the leading performances and the gore effects (especially in that bloodbath climax) are strong enough that I can give this a home video recommendation.

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