Review: ‘M3GAN,’ starring Allison Williams, Ronny Chieng and Violet McGraw

January 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Amie Donald and Violet McGraw (pictured at right) in “M3GAN” (Photo by Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

“M3GAN”

Directed by Gerard Johnstone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle, the horror film “M3GAN” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians ) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A robot doll with artificial intelligence goes on a rampage against anyone who harms the 8-year-old girl who thinks of the doll as her best friend.

Culture Audience: “M3GAN” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching predictable but entertaining horror movies about killer dolls.

Amie Donald, Allison Williams and Violet McGraw (pictured at right) in “M3GAN” (Photo by Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

“M3GAN” (pronounced “megan”) can now join the 1988 “Child’s Play” movie (which introduced the murderous Chucky toy doll) as one of the all-time most memorable “killer doll” movies, gaining legions of fans and inspiring countless horror costumes. “M3GAN” is the type of movie that you know instantly is the start of a franchise. It’s a campy, creepy and comical horror romp that delivers more laughs than genuine scares. Audiences should be in on the joke, which loses its impact with a somewhat weak ending. However, the killer doll’s sinister sassiness is worth seeing.

Directed by Gerard Johnston and written by Akela Cooper, “M3GAN” doesn’t go down the usual supernatural route to explain why the killer doll is so evil. Instead, “M3GAN” is a tale of human-made technology run amok. In that sense, the story is grounded in a reality and a persistent fear that technology with artificial intelligence will develop a mind of its own and do widespread damage. In this case, the damage is done by a 4-foot-tall terror doll named M3GAN, an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android. “M3GAN” also has social commentary on the effects of relying heavily on technology instead of human interactions for handling child care, learning, and developing relationships with other people.

“M3GAN” begins by showing a commercial for automated, furry toy pets called Purrpetual Pets, which can receive commands from mobile devices. The Seattle-based company that makes these toys is named Funki, which considers Hasbro to be one of its biggest rivals. One of the kids who has a Purrpetual Pet is an 8-year-old girl named Cady (played by Violet McGraw), who is playing with a dog version of a Purrpetual Pet in the back seat of a car while her parents are in the front seat.

Cady, her father Ryan (played by Arlo Green) and her mother Nicole (played by Chelsie Preston Crayford) are traveling by car for a family ski trip. It’s snowing heavily outside. Nicole is slightly annoyed by how Cady is so preoccupied with her Purrpetual Pet toy because Cady would rather talk to the toy than talk to her parents. Nicole comments, “What is the purpose of the toy if you have to play it on an iPad?”

The show is coming down so thick that Ryan (who’s driving) temporarily stops the car and doesn’t see the snow truck that plows head-on into the car. Ryan and Nicole die in this accident, while Cady survives. Cady is sent to live with Nicole’s sister Gemma (played by Allison Williams), who lives in Seattle and becomes Cady’s legal guardian. (“M3GAN” was actually filmed in Montreal in Canada, and in the Auckland area of New Zealand.) Gemma, who is single with no biological kids, works as a roboticist at Funki, and was one of the chief creators of Purrpetual Pets. In fact, Cady’s Purrpetual Pet was a gift from Gemma.

It’s an awkward life transition for this aunt and niece. Gemma is a workaholic who has no experience in raising a child. Cady is still grieving over her parents’ death. The movie doesn’t show Gemma grieving too much because Gemma is portrayed as someone who buries her troubles by working at her job. Now that Gemma has become Cady’s guardian, Gemma has to figure out a way for them to adjust to their new living situation.

Cady was homeschooled when her parents were alive. Gemma has to work during the day, so she has to find a local school that will fit Cady’s needs. Later in the movie, Gemma and Cady have an orientation visit to an alternative school that likes to teach classes outdoors. In the meantime, Gemma has to partially work from home to look after Cady. Gemma doesn’t want Cady to feel bored or restless.

To help Cady with her grief and new life transition, Cady has counseling sessions with a therapist named Lydia (played by Amy Usherwood), who is kind and patient with Cady. There’s another reason why this therapist is working with Cady: The parents of Cady’s deceased father Ryan are thinking about taking full custody of Cady. Lydia is evaluating Cady and Gemma to determine if Gemma can be a better guardian than the grandparents.

Because Cady has lost her parents and doesn’t have any friends in Seattle, Cady is understandably a very mopey child. It just so happens that Gemma has been working on a prototype for the M3GAN doll, which she shows to her co-workers Cole (played by Brian Jordan Alvarez) and Tess (played by Jen Van Epps) in their work space. They are all under pressure to come up with a hot-selling new toy because a rival company has copied the Purrpetual Pets toys and selling them for half the price of Funki’s retail sale price.

The CEO of Funki is an egotistical, impatient and frequently rude taskmaster named David Lin (played by Ronny Chieng), who is often accompanied by his “yes man” assistant Kurt (played by Stephane Garneau-Monten), who is usually nervous and jumpy. Kurt’s resentment over being treated like a doormat comes out in later in the story. David and Kurt attend a demonstration of how M3GAN works in the office space of Gemma, Tess and Cole, but the demonstration is a disaster: Cole forgot to put in a polypropylene barrier in M3GAN, so the doll’s head catches on fire and explodes. (No one is hurt in this accident.)

Meanwhile, at Gemma’s home, Cady is curious about the boxed toys that Gemma has on display, but Gemma tells Cady that Cady can’t play with the toys because they are collectibles. Cady is dejected until Gemma shows Cady a robot named Bruce that Gemma keeps in her garage. The robot can walk and talk. Cady is immediately entranced and tells Gemma: “If I had a toy like Bruce, I don’t think I’d ever need another toy again.”

And you know what that means: Gemma and her co-workers fast-track making M3GAN into a toy that will be sold as Funki’s most technologically advanced toy so far. The timing couldn’t come soon enough, because a worried Tess tells Gemma that David can’t find out they spent $100,000 on research and development money on M3GAN before M3GAN was approved. It should come as no surprise that Cady is chosen as the first child who gets to test out M3GAN before the Funki does an official launch of this new toy.

M3GAN, who looks like a girl but acts like an adult, has encyclopedic knowledge of facts and knows all the right things to say in dealing with people’s feelings. M3GAN also has an ability to record and mimic voices. This robotic doll appears to be the perfect combination of a tutor, babysitter and best friend for lonely Cady. In what seems to be a pattern for Cady, she becomes instantly attached to M3GAN, just like Cady was attached to her Purrpetual Pet.

M3GAN also sings pop songs to comfort Cady. These singing scenes are some of the funniest in the movie. If you waited your whole life to see an evil robotic doll sing David Guetta’s “Titanium” to cheer up a girl, and then the doll unleashes some murderous mayhem just minutes later to “protect” the girl, then “M3GAN” is the movie for you.

Why is M3GAN overly protective of Cady? During the testing process, Gemma gave this programming order to M3GAN: Protect Cady from all physical and emotional harm. Of course, this order backfires in the worst ways. Gemma finds out too late that M3GAN has superhuman physical strength along with superhuman intelligence.

Cady also becomes overly attached to M3GAN and doesn’t want to go anywhere without this doll. Cady is so fixated on M3GAN being her “friend,” Cady throws nasty temper tantrums if M3GAN can’t be with Cady at all times. If Cady is separated from M3GAN, Cady acts like an addict being told that the addict can’t have whatever is causing their addiction.

And because this is a horror movie, some of the characters get caught in the crossfire of the havoc that M3GAN wreaks. Gemma’s next-door neighbor Celia (played by Lori Dungey) gets on Gemma’s nerves because Celia has a problematic dog and has a habit of spraying unwanted pesticide on Gemma’s front lawn. At the alternative school, it doesn’t take long for a child bully named Brandon (played by Jack Cassidy) to target Cady.

Williams and McGraw are perfectly fine in their performances as Gemma and Cady, but they have both done versions of these characters in other horror movies. Chieng looks like he’s having fun hamming it up as David, the boss from hell. All the other supporting characters are adequate in their roles.

The real star of the movie, of course, is the character of M3GAN. The M3GAN character is a combination of work from actresses Amie Donald (who does the live-action work) and Jenna Davis (who does the voice work), as well as the work of the movie’s visual effects team. The facial expressions, body language and sarcastic comments of M3GAN show that this dangerous doll has a mind of its own. It’s often hilarious to watch other characters react to M3GAN when they figure out this that M3GAN is not a harmless toy.

One of the biggest flaws of “M3GAN” is that M3GAN doesn’t make her debut as a fully designed talking toy until about 30 minutes into 102-minute movie. And if you’ve seen the trailers for “M3GAN,” you’ve already seen some of the best parts of the movie. All of this might diminish viewer enjoyment of “M3GAN,” but these flaws don’t ruin the movie. “M3GAN” is by no means the best horror movie you can see in a year, but it’s the type of horror movie where people will get hooked enough to want to see the chief villain in other movies.

Universal Pictures released “M3GAN” in U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023.

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