Movies & TV

Toy Stories: How the Subversion of Playthings Makes for Terrific Scares

'Toy Story 4,' 'Child’s Play,' 'Annabelle Comes Home,' and ToyCon 2019 are all happening now.
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ToyCon 2019 is coming up and, as an avid toy collector, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss Child’s Play, Toy Story 4, and Annabelle Comes Home (all coincidentally showing in cinemas during ToyCon weekend) in the context of how we consume toys and how they consume us. 

At the heart of it, all three films share a common thread: We have an inextricable relationship with toys, whether as children or as adults. Child’s Play and Toy Story 4, in particular, focuses on how toys are essential companions for children as they grow up, but also how toys themselves need children to give them a sense of (sometimes murderous) purpose. 

Chucky Gets a Ridiculous Tech Update 

Photo by IMDB.
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Child’s Play is a reboot of the 1988 film that spawned the popular franchise, but this time around, it eschews the possessed-by-a-serial-killer’s-evil-spirit trope and goes with the decidedly Black Mirror-like premise of AI gone wrong. Think killer Roomba that also controls your home like Amazon Alexa.  

The psychopathic toy is produced by a Google- or Amazon-like company called Kaslan, and is the result of a vengeful employee in a Vietnam factory removing the first two of Asimov's Laws of Robotics from a doll’s CPU. It’s a completely ridiculous origin story, considering the employee is implied to have been a former street bum who turns out to be an unethical hacker. With such a throwaway explanation, the original's narrative of a dying serial killer praying to voodoo gods seems more plausible. 

But the biggest hurdle to appreciating the newest Child’s Play is how abysmally bad the new Chucky design is. In the story, Chucky, or the Buddi doll, is supposed to be one of the most popular consumer products on the market, but I would sooner believe my smart home products are trying to kill me than consider buying this ugly doll for my kids.  

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The good news is that, if you can get past the ridiculousness of Chucky’s origin and looks, you’ll enjoy the absolutely campy and over-the-top remake. Chucky, now voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill (he takes over from Brad Dourif, who has voiced the ginger killer doll in all seven previous films), dips his toes in Final Destination territory and orchestrates hilariously horrific murders. 

Depending on your tastes, Child’s Play is either completely fun or completely skippable. If you buy into the idea that a company would actually produce drones with razor-sharp propeller blades, then this is for you. As a bonus, there’s Aubrey Plaza, who’s actually endearing and relatable as a single mom with the worst taste in men.  

Woody Asks the Question No One Wants to Ask 

Photo by IMDB.
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Chucky, for better or worse (but probably worse, because he's a freaking psychopath), simply loves his owner, and only wants to make him happy. This isn’t considerably different from the toys in Toy Story, like Woody, who believes his sole purpose in life is to be loved by a child. The difference is that Chucky will literally murder anyone who gets in the way of that relationship, while Woody will do anything to make his child happy, even if it means putting himself last.  

This speaks volumes about how essential toys are to children and even adults. All three chapters in the Toy Story saga deals with the existential realization of what it means to be a toy, with each one coming to the same conclusion: A toy needs to be with a child for it to have meaning. Chucky pretty much came to the same realization. 

Toy Story 4, however, deals with liberation. What happens when a toy is no longer indentured to a child? It’s a heartbreakingly unnecessary exploration of a question none of us wanted to ask. The Toy Story series could’ve ended with Andy handing over his toys to Bonnie in Toy Story 3 and it would’ve been absolutely perfect, but Disney and Pixar decided to explore a few more questions, including what happened to Bo Peep. 

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Woody, once coveted by an unscrupulous adult collector in Toy Story 2, finds himself at the bottom of the toy totem pole. The loss of purpose throws Woody into a crisis of identity but he’s determined to do right by his child, even if it means losing his spot to a makeshift toy made from a spork and felt wire named Forky (he is voiced by the wonderfully neurotic Tony Hale). 

Interestingly, Toy Story 4 also has horror elements with the introduction of Gabby Gabby, a character based on Talky Tina from a classic Twilight Zone episode. As if she wasn’t creepy enough, Gabby also has a crew of sycophantic ventriloquist dummies, the Bensons, who look identical to Goosebumps’ main antagonist Slappy. It’s hilariously appropriate that Toy Story 4 includes scares as it is sandwiched in between two horror films about toys right now. 

What is it about toys that makes the idea of them coming to life both appealing and horrifying? Though we’re a toy collecting family who has VIP tickets to ToyCon and also sets aside a not-so-modest budget for the toys we plan to buy, my wife and kids aren’t thrilled about the idea of toys that come to life. Toy Story 4 is at times sweet and touching, but ultimately it’s about toys that move. As sentimental as we are about the characters, it’s still a creepy concept, which is why the films rank pretty low on my kids’ Pixar list.  

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Annabelle Does Not Move But is Scary

Photo by IMDB.

Another toy that moves when nobody’s looking is Annabelle. In Annabelle Comes Home, this conduit of evil is never shown to move on its own. Unlike Chucky or Woody, Annabelle is just a really creepy doll that shows up or disappears whenever you look away. That’s part of what makes her horror particularly effective. Whereas Child’s Play goes the route of gore and freakish animatronics, Annabelle is a no-frills ugly porcelain doll that leaves all the terror to your imagination. 

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Demon-hunting husband and wife Ed and Lorraine Warren kick off the film by taking the doll on a drive with the intent of locking it away in their basement filled with all sorts of evil artifacts. Without the constraints of logic and AI, Annabelle Comes Home freely explores all manner of cinematic techniques to elicit goosebumps and jump scares. When Annabelle is placed in a protective cabinet made from glass taken from an old church, all it takes is one mischievous, foolhardy teen, the hallmark of all horror movies, to free her. When the doll breaks free, she activates the other horrific artifacts in the Warren’s forbidden room, resulting in a horror version of Night at the Museum

It’s hard to pin down the best parts about Annabelle Comes Home but the young, stellar cast is certainly among them. Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife as high school best friends Mary Ellen and Daniela give off a Betty and Veronica vibe, while McKenna Grace as the Warrens’ daughter Judy looks like a brunette Kiernan Shipka of Sabrina.

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Mary Ellen is left to babysit Judy while the Warrens go on what we can presume to be a demon-hunting date night. Naturally, it’s the Veronica-like Daniela who plays the foolhardy teen who frees Annabelle, but the best part is that, by the end of the film, audiences will actually be sympathetic to her rather than hate her (which you will for the first half). 

The Warrens’ room of artifacts should be amusingly familiar to any adult with a toy collection: off-limits to kids and sometimes other adults, glass display cases, and a veritable assortment of valuable collector’s items all over the place. The difference, of course, is that most people’s toy collections don’t include the most haunted doll in history as well as other malevolent bric-a-brac. Among the Warrens’ toy collection is the cymbal-banging monkey that’s a pretty close runner-up to Annabelle in the creepy toy department, and a board game called Touchy Feely.  

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The brilliance of Annabelle Comes Home is the tremendous restraint freshman director Gary Dauberman exercises by showing only what is enough to scare audiences (he also co-wrote most of the Conjuring universe and the new adaptation of Stephen King’s It). Most of the terror happens in the audiences’ heads, which is the opposite of Child’s Play.  

Toys are a Proxy for Childhood Innocence

The real Annabelle doll is a Raggedy Ann doll (she makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo) that, although appears less creepy than a weathered porcelain doll with a permanently grinning visage, is actually more terrifying, in that she shows how malevolence can inhabit something so seemingly innocent.  

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This is part of why toys are a great subject for horror. The subversion of the most precious playthings of our youth is inherently terrifying. Toys are a proxy for innocence, allowing perversion without necessarily corrupting children themselves. In cinematic terms, the death or corruption of children is one of the most uncomfortable and delicate subjects, and why Stephen King uses the devices, albeit sparingly, to great effect. Toys take the place of children in stories that are either unwilling nor unable to deal with something typically taboo. 

Child’s Play preys upon the paranoia about automation, taking the dangers of smart devices a little too literally. Chucky is every parent’s fear realized, not necessarily in murderous intent, but in how a toy can hold a child hostage. He's an analog for a tablet, a console game, or other modern-day distractions that possess the youth. Toys demand attention, if not love. Toys that can eat away at relationships and finances (such as those collected by adults) are just as terrifying as Chucky, maybe even more because at least Chucky isn’t real. 

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On the flip side, toys can give unparalleled joy. Children and adult toy collectors know that Marie Kondo herself has no power over a well-curated collection filled with pieces that spark happiness. Woody and his friends are the embodiment of toys that help children cope with the changing world around them. They represent the toys we loved as children and evoke feelings of nostalgia. It’s no coincidence Woody is a vintage toy surrounded by iconic playthings like Barbies and Mr. Potato Head.  

Toy Story has always recognized the special connection a child has with his toys, and its latest installment grants closure to every person who has ever lost a toy. For any parent who’s seen their child worry about a toy they accidentally left behind, Toy Story 4 is here to give you comfort. Your child’s toy will be okay. Your child will be okay. You’ll be okay.

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This is a reassurance that’s at once melancholy and positive. We didn’t need it, but now we truly leave the world of Toy Story knowing everything will be okay for everyone.

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About The Author
Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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