Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) stars as Mike, a young man struggling to retain custody of his elementary-school-age sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), after the death of their mother and abandonment by their father. At night, Mike dreams of his missing brother, trying to solve the mystery of his abduction years ago. After losing yet another job, he reluctantly accepts a gig working the night shift as a security guard at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria, a theme restaurant loosely inspired by the Chuck E. Cheese franchise. (Matthew Lillard of “Scream” is excellent in the small role of a career counselor.) There, Mike finds himself discovering new leads about his brother’s kidnapping in his dream world — yes, he’s sleeping on the job — while encountering the decaying animatronic figures that once enlivened the pizzeria.
They are the best part of the film. These creepy little guys — a robotic bear, chick, rabbit and other characters — have been expertly brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, their worn-out plush hides evincing years of dilapidation and the residue of grease-smeared hands from years gone by. With expressive eyes, terrifying jingles and jarring movements, these robo-critters brighten an otherwise dreary film. But they are underused, clumsily relegated to the background to advance the relationship between Abby and Mike.
Let’s be clear: Horror movies do not need a juicy emotional core to excel. If done well, character development and relationships can help us care about the protagonists, while drawing comparisons to our own lives. But sometimes our worst fears are sufficient, without the juxtaposition of a softly swelling musical score, a speech about the importance of family, or a clunky subplot involving the romance between Mike and a police officer (Elizabeth Lail). All of this creates the impression that the screenwriters (Scott Cawthon, Seth Cuddeback and director Emma Tammi) are less interested in propelling the story along than in checking sentimental boxes.
That said, the filmmakers had a tough job from the get-go: Unlike in other video game adaptations (“The Last of Us,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”), the protagonist of this film, Mike, is never seen in the game and lacks any characterization beyond having accepted a job at Freddy Fazbear’s. Coupled with all the incredibly complicated game lore that has been spawned by the franchise’s 13 titles — and the fan debates they have entailed — this movie is almost set up for failure, particularly with a PG-13 rating that constrains the filmmakers from exploring the creative scares and gore of the source material, involving death by animatronics.
Exactly who is this movie for? Ten-year-olds who have somehow developed a passion for both “Mindhunter” and sappy Disney Channel movies about siblings? Mike’s journey — a quest to identify his brother’s captor, reminiscent of a true-crime tale, while simultaneously strengthening his relationship with his sister — gets entangled with and mangled by the supernatural action and horror setting. By trying to appeal to multiple demographics (gamers, horror fans, people who don’t even like horror and aficionados of treacly family melodrama), “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” which is, incredibly, teeing up for a sequel, manages in the end to tick everyone off.
PG-13. At area theaters; also available on Peacock. Contains strong violence, bloody images and coarse language. 109 minutes.