Director: Andres Muschietti
Writers: Neil Cross, Adres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti
Genre: ghost horror, child horror, PG-13 horror
Recommended to: fans of ghost films, Guillermo del Toro fans, budding horror fans
Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) - The feral children (ages 8? and 6?)
Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) - The girls' uncle, an artist, Annabel's boyfriend and Jeffrey's brother.
Annabel (Jessica Chastain) - Lucas' girlfriend, musician in a rock band
Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) - The girls' psychiatrist
Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) - The girls' wealthy aunt
Mama (Javier Botet and Jane Moffat) - The ghostly protector
Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) - The girls' homicidal father
Jeffrey abducts his daughters after going on a killing spree. Taking refuge in an abandoned cabin, he is killed by a ghostly figure. Five years later, the girls are found living in a feral state, brought back to civilization, and taken into custody by their father's twin, Lucas, and his girlfriend Annabel. However the girls' phantom guardian has followed them and looks on the new family with a jealous eye.
As a big del Toro fan I really wanted to like this film. In fact, given just how much of this film I did like, I have a hard time giving it a thumbs down, however marginal.
An expanded adaptation of Muschietti's short film of the same name (easily found on the internet if you would like to see it), Mama does have a lot of good things going for it, but there is one glaring weakness that undermines all that good will.
To start, Muschietti's direction is strong for most of the film. He frames a scene well, and effectively uses sustained shots to set up scares. He keeps the film moving, and I never found myself bored. He also gets two outstanding performances from the young girls, who must portray varying degrees of civility throughout the film.
Most of the film is carried by Jessica Chastain's Annabel, a Joan Jett wannabe who initially wants nothing to do with children. At first I suspected that she would grow into the film's "evil stepmother" and invite Mama's wrath, but instead events evolve her into a strong, caring mother figure. Chastain could have gone overly sentimental, but I found her growth natural and convincing.
Mama herself is a mixed bag, a combination of practical and digital effects. Those who can't turn off their CGI hate will probably lose this film around the midpoint as her manifestations become more frequent. I'm a bit more forgiving of the effects here, given the film's budget and the ambition of the story. My only real complaint was with her face, a little too cartoonish for what the story demanded.
Where I think the film fails is in its screenplay. It certainly starts out strong, with the feral children providing some of the strongest scares and creepiest images in the film. But as the film progresses it slowly loses its way, and falls apart just as it should be delivering an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I believe that a big problem lies in its origin - this was a short film being dragged out to ninety minutes, and the bloat is evident.
Aunt Jean does little in the film except provide a potential custody threat, but even that feels hollow. At no point do you feel that she has a serious chance to take the children, especially with Mama guarding them jealously, and when she is finally dispatched, it is to little effect and for little purpose.
More sinful is the handling of Uncle Lucas. Early in the film he suffers a Mama-induced accident, putting him in a coma for a good part of the film (but we are assured quickly that he will recover, undermining any chance for Jean to take custody of the children). They could have kept him there, and it wouldn't have changed the rest of the film one bit. Once he does awaken, he has one (two?) visits with the girls, but Annabel never informs him of the ghostly happenings (nor does he mention Mama pushing him down the stairs). He has a bad dream which sends him on a quest for Mama's origins, but he gets lost in the woods, gets a phone call, then gets knocked out. He contributes exactly nothing to the plot, and his vision quest goes nowhere.
A similar fate befalls Dr. Dreyfuss, the girls' shrink. At first he disbelieves in ghosts, but some conveniently supplied exposition seems to sway him easily, and has him running back to the cabin to look for clues in the middle of the night, where Mama kills him. To my memory, no one ever tells this to Annabel or the girls (he seemed to be forming a connection with Victoria), and after Annabel steals the MacGuffin Box, his life and death are forgotten.
As to the film's climax, that seems to be the source of dissatisfaction for most viewers (based on the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes feedback, as well as my wife's two cents), as Mama is given the remains of her dead child, but stubbornly refuses to move on to the great beyond as dictated by the great ghost cliche'. I didn't mind that so much - she wanted her child, not a bundle of bones, and for the past 5 years Lily and Victoria were her children - but I can see why so many wanted the pat ending. My problem is that what follows fails to commit to an ending. Either Mama needs to take the girls, or she needs to be vanquished. Instead they take a half measure, sending Lily off with Mama, and Victoria with Annabel and Lucas. Oh, and Lily becomes a butterfly. By refusing to commit one way or another, I found the finale emotionally confused, and undercutting the story that had been built to that point. So much work had been done to earn the emotional breakthrough between Lily and Annabel that it was hard to take this as a happy ending, but clearly we were meant to think Annabel (and Victoria) were okay with what transpired. An emotionally vague, cut-the-baby-in-half ending simply left me feeling empty and apathetic.