After months of watching the dead-eyed killer android from Universal’s M3gan dance her way across social media into the hallowed halls of true internet fame, you might think there couldn’t be much more going on in the film that wasn’t already spoiled by trailers. But much like its eponymous plaything of the future, M3gan packs a surprisingly potent punch that takes a handful of narrative bugs and turns them into a delightfully comedic horror feature.
Caught somewhere between After Yang and the most recent Child’s Play, M3gan — from director Gerard Johnstone (Housebound) and screenwriter Akela Cooper (Luke Cage, Malignant) — is yet another tale of what happens when A.I.-powered androids become too sentient for their own good. Rather than simply framing sophisticated pieces of technology as being ripe for evil, though, M3gan goes for the jugular by focusing on the very real anxieties that can come with parenting and the way that people sometimes try to deal with those feelings by over-relying on tools.
A young girl named Cady (Violet McGraw) is loved by all the adults in her life. But people like Cady’s parents are also busy, distracted, and constantly being pulled in a million different directions, which is a big part of why interactive, Furby-like toys called Perpetual Pets are such a hit. With a Perpetual Pet — toys Cady’s robotics engineer aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) helped design — on board, parents can feel like their children are constantly being engaged and know that they can always turn the talking, chirping, farting creatures off with the accompanying smartphone app. But when a bit of commotion involving Cady’s Perpetual Pet leads to a terrible accident that orphans her, both her and her aunt’s lives are upended.
With a deadline to present the next generation of Perpetual Pets to her boss David (Ronny Chieng) looming over her, neither grieving her sister nor taking in her niece are things Gemma expected to have on her plate. But the stress and messiness of their situation push Gemma — a flatly characterized workaholic who’s not the best with kids — to finally put the finishing touches on her very expensive, very ethically dubious side project, M3gan (voiced by Jenna Davis and physically portrayed by Amie Donald).
Though the first of M3gan’s hysterical fake commercials for Perpetual Pets gives you a solid sense of its humor, the movie takes a bit of time as it’s first powering up and setting the stage for a story that’s unexpectedly thoughtful. Cady’s discomfort with Gemma has less to do with her aunt being too focused on her job and more to do with the reality that they’re both experiencing a kind of grief that’s difficult to express — particularly for young people going through it for the first time. Some of M3gan’s most effective scenes feel almost as if they could have been plucked from a straightforward drama. McGraw commands the screen as a kid full of anguish opposite Williams (who feels sort of checked out for most of the film). And when Cady and M3gan first start to become friends that the movie really begins to cut loose and come to life in an impressively satisfying way.
Long before M3gan, the doll, actually starts killing people, M3gan, the movie, encourages you to just go ahead and start having a chuckle at the silliness of its premise. It’s self-aware that it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. Rather, it’s yassifying the classic killer toy + unsuspecting public formula and using the result to do some solid bits with one of the most unsettling dolls to star in a film since The Twilight Saga’s Breaking Dawn: Part 1.
The human physicality of Donald’s performance is what often makes M3gan feel like a believable, fluid, dangerous machine that’s always ready to shift gears and hunt on all fours. But some of M3gan’s funniest scenes appear to just be human actors acting opposite of a lifeless prop made to seem like it’s moving with in-camera tricks and clever angles. Similar to how some of The Muppets’ best gags were really just people tossing puppets in front of a camera, there are moments throughout where M3gan just pops into frame, and you can’t quite tell if she’s actor crouching down, or if a M3gan mask has simply been dropped in front of a camera in a way meant to take you by surprise.
It’s not always clear if you’re watching one actor pretend to choke another or if you’re seeing an actor holding a glamorous mannequin child’s hand up to their throat, but it almost always works in context because of how knowingly ridiculous the movie becomes. At times, you can clearly see the tape and glue metaphorically holding M3gan together, and the movie’s internal sense of logic does feel inconsistent more often than not. But M3gan’s able to redeem itself partially because it never feels like it’s trying to take itself all that seriously and because of how it manages to pull off an astonishing number of pointed jokes — many of them musical — about consumerism and being addicted to screen time.
As January debuts go, M3gan’s one that more than punches above its weight class and thankfully understands the value of clocking in well below the two-hour mark — something more films asking you to come on wild rides with them could stand to remember.
M3gan also stars Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps, Stephane Garneau-Monten, Arlo Green, and Lori Dungey. The movie hits theaters on January 6th.