The bar for creepy doll horror-comedy is low. But M3GAN, somehow, is a hit

In many ways, M3GAN is more a comedy than anything else. And in leaning into the absurdism of its plot, it revitalizes the possessed-doll horror subgenre — and is one of the most fun movies in recent memory.

Funny, surreal and not all that scary, M3GAN is one of the first great movies of 2023

A doll with very human features stares at the viewer. She wears a button-down dress, with a large bow.
The new horror-comedy film M3GAN, which releases in theatres today, is more comedy than horror — and one of the first great movies of 2023. (Universal Pictures)

It was about this time last year that critics, myself included, somehow found themselves scrambling to give flowers to a movie that, in the before-times, would be considered nothing more than pulp. 

"It's an unnecessary but welcome victory lap," I wrote in my own review for a film I would still call one of my unequivocal favourites of the year. "A triumphant swan song … [it's] one of the very few examples of simple, uncomplicated, non-toxic fun." 

And not only do these two movies share the bewildering fact that arts pundits are showering them with their highest accolades, but there's an even clearer parallel. Because for this review, I could almost perfectly describe what makes M3GAN work by taking that old headline, and switching out the movie title: Jackass Forever is chaotic, dumb — and nearly perfect.

That's what producers' Jason Blum and James Wan's M3GAN is: chaotic, dumb — and nearly perfect. It's an off-the-wall, irreverent, and absolutely on-target sci-fi slasher-satire about a killer-kid robot. 

WATCH | M3GAN trailer

And like Jackass Forever — a movie about a group of aging friends building increasingly elaborate ways to laugh while risking their lives — M3GAN is an ostensibly low-brow flick pulling in nearly perfect scores as far as critical acclaim goes.

As a kind of spiritual successor to Annabelle (itself a prequel to The Conjuring, all three created by Wan and all three with a focus on demonic dolls), M3GAN leads the oversaturated — and rarely good — possessed doll subgenre through the only real route to success.

Because while M3GAN is objectively a horror, Blum and Wan hit on the real problem and opportunity of films about evil toys. No matter how hard you try, a four-foot-tall puppet with a knife will always be more ridiculous than frightening. The sole option you have is, luckily, also a great one: you have to make 'em laugh.

M3GAN leans all the way in

To that end, M3GAN leans all the way in; in many ways, it's more a comedy than anything else — even if it doesn't sound as much on paper. We follow nine-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) after she loses both of her parents in a car crash, and is shunted off to live with her emotionally stunted aunt Gemma (Allison Williams). 

Cady soon finds herself isolated, as Gemma is more focused on her career inventing interactive children's toys than actually interacting with a child. That is until, in a stroke of heavy-handed thematic serendipity, Gemma invents an interactive doll that can give Cady all the attention she'd rather not: M3GAN, creatively short for "Model 3 Generative ANdroid."

A young girl and a woman sit on a bed. The girl appears sad, while the woman speaks to her. Behind them an impassive doll sits, staring at the girl.
Actors Violet McGraw, left, and Allison Williams, right, appear alongside M3GAN in the titular film. Everything about M3GAN is over-the-top, and that's what makes it succeed. (Universal Pictures)

From there, the walleyed robot with the sole objective of protecting her "primary user" from harm acts just about how you'd expect. Unsettling stares, malfunctioning electronics and grisly murders follow M3GAN and Cady around until an expected conclusion and hint at sequels. 

But while the plot is typical, what makes M3GAN shine is how it walks a tightrope few have walked successfully before. Its story about technology obsession has something to say about surveillance capitalism and the eventual effect of an entire generation raised on iPads and apps. Gemma and Cady's performances — both of which are fantastic — manage to cram deep and believable character development into a silly narrative that didn't demand it. And it does it all while staunchly refusing to ever, at any point, take itself even the slightest bit seriously.

As a mainstream film, it is incredibly difficult to make yourself the butt of the joke and still ingratiate yourself to an audience: look no further than The Bubble's painful attempts to riff on Hollywood and the pandemic or the ever-growing pushback against Marvel's "Millennial humour." 

Here, M3GAN manages the impossible: when the titular android sings a slowed-down version of David Guetta's Titanium as a lullabye, it's somehow equal parts hilarious, original and creepy instead of cringe-worthy. 

And when the movie's soundtrack inexplicably becomes part of the characters' actual world, leading M3GAN to perform the unsettling but incredible hallway dance that caused the film to go viral months before its release, its absurdity is intentional. It's not scary, and, if you think about it, there's no reason for it to be funny — it's bizarre and pointless, but bizarre and pointless on purpose. 

That's why M3GAN so improbably works. You are supposed to laugh at M3GAN, not with it — but M3GAN is laughing at itself too. It is camp, it is Gen Z's surreal humour finally in practice. To many — despite the fact the plot has no direct references to queerness — its over-the-top style (in both storytelling and fashion) and singular focus on a lonely and isolated childhood places the film squarely in the LGBTQ+ canon, and qualifies M3GAN herself as a queer-icon

M3GAN, Child's Play and Chucky 

All that to say, M3GAN is nothing if not fun — though it's still far from perfect. The most obvious movie to contrast it with is Child's Play, the 1988 psychological thriller that launched the expansive Chucky universe, and the modern genre of possessed dolls that led to M3GAN. The two are so obviously comparable they even participated in an iconic exchange (and very obvious orchestrated PR stunt) on Twitter, as the two characters traded barbs over who was really more deadly

And while the Chucky franchise quickly ditched its originally semi-serious plot for a basic slasher/comedy premise, it began as a story that truly unsettled its audience. The maniacal single-mindedness of Chucky actually had you on the edge of your seat, and the rampage at the end of his first movie seemed like it would never end.

M3GAN, on the other hand, is far less concerned with delivery on its murderous promise. While the first two acts build up the suspense wonderfully, M3GAN's climactic killing spree is unfortunately lacklustre. Putting far more stock in its attempts to surprise and confuse you, the payoff is over almost before it begins — with a body count far below what we know she could deliver. 

At the same time, not all of the comedy sticks the landing. Throughout, the banter between Gemma's overbearing boss David (Ronny Chieng) and his sycophantic assistant Kurt (Toronto-based Stephane Garneau-Monten) leaves gaps for audience laughs that never come. 

But these complaints are small. On the whole, M3GAN accomplishes nearly everything it attempts, and everything the buzz promised.

For fans of horror, there is just enough gorey action to keep you engaged — as well as the discovery of newly crowned scream-queens in the dual acting job of accomplished dancer Amie Donald, who plays M3GAN, and content creator and TikTok star Jenna Davis, who voices her. Comedy fans will love the one-liners and beyond-the-pale situations, while everyone else can be assured they'll love the world Wan and Blum have created — and are promising to expand.

Because as of now, it's M3GAN's world, and we're just living in it. 


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver