'M3gan' Review: The High Bar Has Already Been Set for Cinematic Fun in 2023

Four Star Rating: ***½ 
Cast: Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Jenna Davis (voice), Amie Donald, Jen Van Epps, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Ronny Chieng
Director: Gerard Johnstone
Screenplay: Akela Cooper
Story by: Akela Cooper, James Wan
Producers: James Wan, Jason Blum
Cinematography: Peter McCaffrey
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
Music: Anthony Willis
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions, Atomic Monster Productions, Divide/Conquer
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures
Genre: Horror
Rated: 14A (Ontario)/ PG-13 (United States) - Violence, Frightening Scenes, Coarse and Suggestive Language
Release Date: January 6, 2023
Runtime: 102 minutes

There is always something thrilling about going to see the first theatrical movie of the new year. It is a fresh start for a brand-new slate of pictures, and a kick-off to what has the potential to be the best year of movies yet. My continued optimism at the start of every year also likely comes from just freshly completing the list of my top ten movies of the previous year, so I'm infused with positivity from great stories and I'm filled with hope more are on the way.

Many critics would say my optimism is foolish because January is notoriously known as the movie studios dumping ground where many of the worst of the year contenders are ready to pounce. But I've always had a soft spot for January because even though it is true that studios tend to unload the movies that they deem will not be hits or they are not sure how to market, it doesn't always mean they are bad movies. It often means they are little bit different than what is popular in the mainstream at the time, so there is always a chance for something unique. A hidden gem can always be uncovered in January.

2023 is not only beginning with a true glowing jewel, but one of the most fun and bonkers experiences in a movie theatre in quite some time. M3gan has not only set a positive tone for the new year of movies, but the bar for pure entertainment is high already. If several upcoming movies can get over that bar, then this year will be a blast.

There is the pedigree behind this picture that hinted this could be more than a standard toy doll turn into a sentient killer feature. Director Gerard Johnstone proved his ability to blend gut-busting humour with high-stakes horror in his reworking of the haunted house subgenre in the excellent 2014 New Zealand horror comedy Housebound. The screenwriter Akela Cooper has already proven she is willing to delve into insanity with last year's B-movie horror homage Malignant, and she also conceived this story alongside one of the producers in James Wan, who must be considered horror royalty in modern movie terms. Speaking of powerhouse producers, Jason Blum is behind this as well, and even if not all movies from his company have been good, he has been behind many of the recent modern classics. 

M3gan works because it never takes itself too seriously and keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek while also crafting compelling enough characters and heaping in enough drama, so there are stakes and we remain invested in their fates. No one will argue M3gan is elevated horror (a term that I despite), but it has some things to say about parental responsibility, our over reliance on technology, and corporate/creator accountability. The messages are slathered in campy and over-the-top horror fun while daring to go in a few unexpected directions.

The tone of the movie is instantly established with an ad for the fictional toy Purrpetual Petz that look like the popular 1990s' craze Furby blended for the app obsessed generation. The short spoof is a candy-coated nostalgic infused joke that also works as a clear commentary of how corporations target kids as consumers.

It is followed by a tragic sequences with a family's unfortunate literal run in with a snow plow that leaves Cady (performed by Violet McGraw) parentless. Ambitious and hard-working roboticist Gemma (played by Allison Williams) is designated the new legal guardian, even though she is consumed by her job at a major toy company and has little interest or knowledge in kids (despite them being the primary target of her creations).

Williams has a history of taking on complicated and intriguing roles in horror pictures with stellar performances in Get Out and The Perfection. She is shines in a layered role of someone who is conflicted with wanting to honour her sister's wishes to care for her daughter while being consumed with creating the next cutting-edge toy to get her company ahead of competition like Hasbro (which in a humorous line is actually referenced in the movie). Williams expertly handles a nuanced character where she at times conveys deep compassion for Cady as she tries to connect with her, but other times she is completely driven by her Model 3 Generative Android (known also as M3gan) project at the cost of relationships and the emotional well-being of others.

There are many movies that have had killer toys or delved into the dangers of giving considerable control to evolving AI. One of the intriguing parts about M3gan is the picture explores the harm of the AI doll even before it goes on a killing spree and starts violently push back against its creators. Gemma relies on the doll to be a stand-in caregiver and Cady deeply connects with the toy, but the movie challenges what affect this has on the emotional well-being of a young girl still grieving over her parents, and the potential costs of losing crucial human connection when she needs it most. This speaks to a society where we plug our kids in front of devices as babysitters, despite what it may do to their social and emotional well-being.

The other interesting component as a character study is how we choose to see Gemma as either a protagonist or antagonist. There are crucial scenes where she tries to connect with Cady, and it is clear she means well, and when M3gan becomes a clear threat then Gemma does push against it. But she also is using her niece as a test subjects for a toy that will be crucial for her career success, and the viewers are often left wondering how many choices are made for selfish means rather than for the child she is responsible for looking after. The picture has a lot to say about the parent and child dynamic in modern times, but also how much corporations and careers can drive our decisions.

I don't want to trick you into thinking this is a didactic tale focused on its message. Johnstone's first priority is to entertain by crafting a picture that balances over-the-top humorous moments with some unsettling horror. There are some scenery chewing supporting characters like Lori Dungy harnessing everyone's worst nightmare neighbour and Ronny Chieng relishing his role as the hard-driving, money-driven boss, with both a riot anytime they are on the screen. There is also a memorable sequence in the woods that plays as a disturbing horror moment but dips deep into b-movie territory to also provide very dark comedy.  

The picture can delightfully unsettle the view with Anthony Willis' score masterfully accompanying well- staged and edited scenes like how M3gan slowly creeps out of the shadows before one memorable kill. There is a great shot of M3gan sitting amongst stuffed dolls in a more disturbing recreation of the famous E.T. scene. 

There needs to be high-praise for the creation of the M3gan doll who feels realistic in how plastic and toy-like she is in physical appearance and how she moves in a robot trying to be human way. The costume design makes a believable doll, and there is terrific CGI to enhance the facials that put some bigger budget movies to shame in how much it does not look to be computer effects. Amie Donald is the actor that is in the costume, and she must be commended for her physical work, and Jenna Davis provide voices work that is both comforting and creepy at the necessary moments. 

If I have any major criticism, it isn't against the filmmakers, but rather the marketing team that shows way too much in the trailers giving away far too many memorable moments. If you have somehow avoided the trailer then I encourage you to continue that practice and go into this bonkers horror picture knowing as little as possible. This is the high-energy and zany blast of horror fun we crave to kick-off the movie year.