When the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie was originally greenlit eight years ago, the task of adapting this video game into a movie was a lot simpler. That was still right when the series was just getting started, had no meaningful lore, and was just a bare-bones story about a night security guard trying to survive a week with a bunch of murderous animatronic animals at a decrepit Chuck E Cheese-type place.
When the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie is able to just be that–and it is most of the time–it’s a lot of fun. Creepy and weird animatronic nonsense is a really funny part of our culture and is an excellent idea for a movie. But it can’t manage to just be that, because the franchise has grown a ton since this project first began.
These days, Five Nights at Freddy’s is a fully fleshed-out universe with a bunch of games and ancillary spin-offs like novels and comic books, and so there’s now a metric f***ton of lore beneath everything. That’s a good thing for the fans, but it made the adaptation much more difficult over the years, even with series creator Scott Cawthon co-writing the screenplay. And so the storytelling ends up in kind of an awkward spot.
At the core of this story is Mike (Josh Hutcherson), a very grungy and tired-looking guy who loses his job as a security guard by beating up a random guy at the mall who he very incorrectly thought was kidnapping a young boy. But even though he’s basically unemployable at this point, Mike has his little sister Abby to take care of. And so, at the urging of a suspicious job counselor played by Matthew Lillard, Mike takes a new job nobody else wants: night security at the long-closed Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza.
Even if there weren’t a bunch of murderous animatronic animal musicians living in the place, this would be a creepy gig. The place is old, dark, and full of flickering lights–that’s not an ideal work environment. The animatronics bring it all together, though. They’re shot terrifyingly even when they aren’t moving, or when they’re just doing their normal routine of playing “Talking in Your Sleep” by The Romantics. Frankly, just about every scene they appear in is a good one, and the way they threateningly squint at people they’re about to go after is a delight each and every time they do it.
An R rating, and all the gore that comes with it, would have been a nice topper for the experience, but it ended up going PG-13 because Freddy’s has a very young core audience despite the horrifically violent subject matter. It’s not a deal-breaker, though–director Emma Tammi and co. managed to sell the violence through sound and shadow rather than showing it explicitly, and that actually works most of the time, such as when one character gets bitten in half.
The problem is the storytelling. Mike isn’t just a broke and unstable loser who’s had a tough life–he’s got a lifelong crusade to find his little brother who was kidnapped when they were children and never heard from again. There’s also Mike’s aunt, who wants to take over custody of Abby. An extremely nice and helpful cop named Vanessa who seems to know everything about Freddy’s for unknown reasons also plays a major role. And there’s the fact that these robot animals like Abby way more than they should and want to hang out with her all the time.
The whole thing is basically a remix of the current Five Nights at Freddy’s big picture, borrowing elements from different places and using them somewhat differently, or very differently in some cases. But it never really adds up to anything, because this movie has more plot than it’s able to support. Or at least the finished cut does–it’s not tough to imagine that there could be a version of the film that’s 10-20 minutes longer and makes way more sense. It’s a case of having too many plot points and not enough story to properly develop them all, which leaves the ending feeling pretty random.
It’s unfortunate, because Hutcherson, who is in nearly every scene in the movie, put in some very good work as the always-sleepy Mike. It’s not the most flattering role, because it required him to look like trash from beginning to end, but it’s that aspect combined with Hutcherson’s appropriately tired performance that gives the film some heft well before anybody ever even mentions Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza. Even when the story goes off the rails, Hutcherson manages to mostly hold the movie together.
Hopefully next time, if there is a next time, he won’t have to.