The short film “Mama,” written and directed by Andrés Muschietti, is an interesting little number. Shot almost entirely in one take, it follows two young girls as they seek to escape their home when the sinister “Mama” returns. Hindered by its short running time, “Mama” is less a vehicle for a narrative than for Muschietti’s impressive visual style and some decidedly creepy animation, though this was clearly enough for Guillermo del Toro to take the talented director under his wing and develop the film into a feature.
After killing his estranged wife and several colleagues, a young businessman named Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gathers up his young daughters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and begins to drive them out of town. His anger getting ahold of him, he accidentally loses control of the car, causing it to tumble over the side of a mountain and into a forest. They make their way to an isolated cabin that isn’t as empty as they think. Five years later, Jeffrey’s brother Lucas (also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his rock star wife Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) haven’t given up the search for Victoria and Lily until one day they’re discovered in the cabin, having become completely feral.
Victoria and Lily slowly begin the rehabilitation process, recounting to child psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) tales of a figure known only as “Mama,” (Javier Botet) a seemingly malevolent spirit that lives in the walls of the cabin and serves as a surrogate guardian figure. Eventually they’re released to the care of Lucas and the reluctant Annabelle, who begins to suspect that the children brought something home with them.
Mama pulls a sort of bait-and-switch on the viewer, opening with a strong introduction to set the stage for things to come before drifting quickly into formula. As the story unfolds, you can’t help but think you’ve seen it all before: the disturbed children; the couple whose relationship might be on the rocks; a helpful doctor with an ulterior motive; and a ghost with a mysterious yet misunderstood past. Its few frightening scenes, only a small handful of which actually hit their mark by implying rather than showing, are enough to keep you engaged, but they’re not enough to create anything genuinely compelling from the weak narrative.
As the film progresses, Mama becomes less of a catalyst for the bizarre behavior of Victoria and Lily and more of a physical antagonist, causing harm to those she deems a threat to her protection of the girls. Unfortunately, the mystery and fear created by implying rather than showing is sucked dry through shoddy CGI and the need to show her face all too often. Given her newly created back-story it’s necessary, but it does a huge disservice to the Mama of the short film, a nameless and faceless entity that is ultimately transformed into an almost sympathetic character trying to right a wrong from her past. All of this culminates in a Tim Burton-inspired ending that belies the tone of the previous 85 minutes, with the film transitioning from horror to fantasy with little to no warning.
Perhaps the stars of the show are the two little girls, namely Isabelle Nelisse, who shines in the role of Lily. Retaining much of her feral characteristics after being discovered, she inspires some of the film’s more frightening scenes as she clambers around on all fours, eerily whispering “Mama” and interacting with an unseen entity. She’s a stand out in a film filled with mostly throwaway characters, none of which contain enough depth to be truly memorable. Gothed out Jessica Chastain is ill cast as a reluctant girlfriend with no desire to raise two children littered with behavioral problems; she’s just too warm and cheerful in appearance to pull off the brooding mother shtick with any sort of verisimilitude. As her boyfriend Lucas, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a mostly wooden character that exists solely to thrust Annabelle into the role of mother figure before disappearing for most of the film. When he does, it’s merely to set up the ending in the most convenient of possible ways.
Beyond a few good scares, Mama never manages to do in one hundred minutes what the short film did in just three. Weak characters, a contrived story, and an over-reliance on CGI make Mama yet another in a long line of forgettable PG-13 horror films.