Seeing those four dreamy and all encompassing words “Once Upon A Time” at the start of any story is a dead give away that what you are about to see is a fairy tale. Translation: not real. But what else does it mean? Is that meant to keep kids (or adults) from being scared? Or is this the only way to make us buy what the story is selling? Not sure but this has all the familiar hallmarks of a fairy tale. This isn’t Little Red Riding Hood and this sure ain’t kids stuff. Mama calls back to the darker Grimm fairy tales and, as per all the advertising, is in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth. Also those two words “fairy tale” pretty much sums up anything from Guillermo Del Toro. Yet this isn’t a GDT film (see the poster below right), he’s presenting Mama. Keep in mind that it may walk, talk, feature oddly dark and intricate entities, and quack like Del Toro but the name you need to know is Andrés Muschietti. Like Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg lending their name to a filmmaker they believe in, a GDT film this is not. Sure it has some familiar hints and flourishes but this is Andrés Muschietti film. GDT is simply a hook to get people in the door and it works yet once you’re in it’s still kind of tough to tell the difference between the two.
Mama is the feature-length adaptation of Andrés Muschietti’s 3-minute short film of the same name. In this story, two very young children, Lilly and Victoria, through a flurry of tragic events at the film’s opening, are left all alone in a deserted cabin in the woods. As told through the creepy and unsettling opening credit sequence, a series of expositional pictographs/children’s drawings, they are kept alive and raised by a spectral figure known only as Mama. Never giving up hope on finding them, the girls’ uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has paid search parties to tirelessly traverse the surrounding area. After 5 years of searching the girls are miraculously found but they are justifiably worse for their wear. The attempts to get them back to a civilized way of living proves difficult as the girls are quite feral and slow to adapt to their former lifestyles. But getting them to speak and walk upright are the least of their uncle’s concerns as Mama will not let her children go.
From the very first frame, Mama is drenched in atmosphere and setting (not sure that’s to Muschietti’s or Del Toro’s credit). Even scenes that are meant to be pleasing, like Lilly and Victoria’s room, or their ideally peaceful looking new house, everything has this unsettling feel to it underlying the pretense. But that all plays into the story. It’s a dark off-kilter fairy tale and there is no room for comfort on this ride. Part ghost story, part detective story Mama is a search for answers. Why aren’t the girls alright? Who is Mama if she is more than a figment of the girls’ imagination? It’s an interesting premise that Muschietti had with his short film and expanded to a feature length film, making this like The Ring, or better Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, a search for answers and not just some poor folks escaping a spectral killer which keeps it engaging. Speaking of the short, before this film Muschietti has nothing to his credit; must have been a big leap of faith or an incredible 3 minutes to get Del Toro on board (actually it is and you can check it out right here, replete with an introduction from Del Toro).
Off a recent string of hits Jessica Chastain seems an odd fit for this type of role and even more so is the character she plays. More suited to try her hand at Lisbeth Salander, her tattooed, metal band Gothic look is alarming at first and eventually the absurd look becomes less distracting…although you still might want her to start talking with a Swedish accent. She is forced into taking reigns of the film when, all too soon, an altercation with Mama takes the girl’s uncle (Coster-Waldau) out of the film for most of the runtime. So even though she has no desire to raise or care for children, least of all ones that aren’t hers, Annabel (Chastain) eventually grows fond of the Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier) but is all too freaked out when Mama starts poking her head (to some rather awesome scares) in and out of doorways in this new home.
Making matters worse is that Victoria is either repressing the memories in the cabin or just willing to move on and accept her return to normalcy. Lilly on the other hand remains just as feral, skittish and primal as she was in the woods, preferring to sleep under the bed, eat bugs and crawl on all fours. That’s all too creepy on a handful of occasions. Mama keeps a watch on her “girls” and is not too happy about them beginning to find solace away from the cabin nor is she subtle about letting Annabel know it, taunting her with cryptic visions as opposed to violent confrontations. Chastain does her best with the material which is limited to walking slowly to each doorway and freaking out at a CG incarnation that isn’t there (this film would have really befitted from practical effects).
As her search continues to find out who Mama is and protect the three of them, she asks the doctor turned detective who is assessing the girls’s psychological damage one of the most sensible questions likely heard in a thriller/quasi-horror film. “Am I safe?” It’s that bit of self-aware mentality that attempts to round out the film and advance the detective angle to the story. However, it’s lost amid the nonsensical final third of the film and the forced scenes where Mama becomes aggressive and unwilling to give up custody of Lilly and Victoria.
Were it a true Guillermo Del Toro film, Mama would not be up to par. As Muschietti’s first feature, it’s not half bad. Yet for all the things Muschietti does right there are a series of things he does wrong; most of which are unavoidable due to the trappings of the genre and the narrative. It’s a fine attempt for someone to try and take the torch of eerie story teller away from Tim Burton but the attempts at a supernatural family drama, replete with sentimentality, evoke little more than a yawn or a rolling of the eyes.
At the end of the day there’s only a few things that derail Mama but they carry a lot of dead weight. For all the great atmosphere, set up and decent acting, the trite writing and uninspired ending all but kill the third act which is bogged down with cliches, too much CG and worst of all tedium. The fact that it’s a “fairy tale” kind of force the ending into a corner and keep it from being anything more than it is and it’s a pity because the first 2/3rds mostly hit their marks. January is a well known dump month for studios and sadly Mama falls right in line with those misfit films.