In general, I am a huge fan of the films Guillermo del Toro has directed, and occasionally the films he has produced. Despite the best efforts of every advertisement for the film, make no mistake, Mama is NOT directed by Guillermo del Toro – he serves an executive producer of the film. If you were expecting the beautiful imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy, then get those thoughts out of your head immediately or you will undoubtedly be as let down as I was. Admittedly, I had high hopes for Mama that were a bit marred once I discovered that the film had received a PG-13 rating (which is a discussion for another time), but my curiosity still got the best of me and planted my ass in a theater seat on opening night. Now I’m no feline, but curiosity came dangerously close to killing me as well.
On paper, Mama features a fairly intriguing plot. Two young sisters are left stranded in the woods for over five years, causing them to rely on animalistic instincts to survive. When they are finally discovered, hiding in an abandoned cabin, their uncle Luke (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his reluctant girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) receive custody of the two girls. While the eldest, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), re-adapts to the domesticated life she grew up in, her younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), has trouble kicking the only form of life she has ever really known. When doctors question how the two young girls survived living alone in the woods for so long, Victoria tells them of “Mama,” a creature that lived in the walls of the cabin and protected Victoria and Lilly from various dangers.
Unfortunately, the film is far too cheesy to take itself as seriously as it does, relying heavily on the audience’s fear of “Mama.” In the worst possible fate, the character of “Mama” is created using CGI… and very bad CGI at that. She looks like a villain in a Playstation 2 era video game. Seriously, it is that bad. When the monster finally appears in a practical effects format, it is so poorly done that I had shades of Goosebumps pop up in my mind… and not in a complimentary fashion. At times, the effects are so laughable that attempted “scare” scenes caused me to laugh out loud. One of the big “creep out” moments involves a computer typing “MAMA” repeatedly. It’s almost stunning in its goofiness.
All of that aside, Mama certainly has its moments. All of the acting is above-par, and the relationship between Annabel and her adoptive nieces makes the film worth watching. There are no genuinely scary aspects of the movie, and I found myself smiling at the film’s generally unintentional cuteness more than I found myself jumping out of my seat. Lilly’s broken English is adorable and her attempt to repeat Annabel’s rule to “use the stairs” received a unanimous “aww” from the entire audience. Jessica Chastain’s smokin’ Joan Jett-esque appearance and perfect cleavage kept my eyes glued to the screen, even when there wasn’t much of interest occurring in the story. That’s not to say that her performance is anything less than excellent, as she proves why she has so much hype surrounding her.
Overall, Mama just isn’t that great. The film’s trailer was significantly more frightening and intense than the actual feature was, due to the sheer lack of the “Mama” character that was shown in the preview. Mama is a hard movie to recommend. On one hand, it’s an absolute cheeseball of a film. On the other, it does have intriguing characters with addicting relationships. It really comes down to this: If you’re looking for a piss-your-pants horror film – look somewhere else. If an occasionally cute story of family with a dark twist is more of what you’re after, then give Mama a chance. Just don’t get your hopes up.