Mama is a perfect argument for why most short-form films, no matter how strong they may be, don't necessarily need to be developed into 90+ minute features. There are, of course, exceptions; one could argue for the idea that Benh Zeitlin's astounding feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a repurposing of the themes of his earlier short Glory at Sea, but Zeitlin wisely fleshed out an entirely new scenario for Beasts (it's the setting and tone that remain, not the scenario). Director Andrés Muschietti turned in a frightening three minute version of Mama back in 2008. Impressed by the potential within it, Guillermo del Toro decided to throw a bunch of money at it to see if it could be stretched into a movie proper. Like an overfilled leaky balloon, the result makes a lot of noise, but quickly deflates under the pressure of its expansion.
In the earlier version, Muschietti barely sketched out his characters, which was perfectly appropriate for the length and purpose of his short. Mama as a three minute piece is barely more than an establishment of mood and two quick scares. Mama as a full blown film needs a bit more meat on the bone, and Muschietti and his co-writers do attempt to flesh things out. They do this by creating a backstory involving two young sisters (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) who, after the film's grisly disposal of their father, are raised for five years by a spectre they refer to as Mama. During this time, the girls are presumed dead by just about everyone outside of their uncle Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who, oddly, also plays their father at the fore of the film) who's been paying a private investigator to track them down since they disappeared. When the investigation team locates them in a beat down cabin, uncle Jeffrey and his punky/gothy/grungy (ok, non-specific) rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) take in the now feral youngsters.
Predictably, Mama is a fierce protector and follows the girls to their new home, quickly putting Jeffrey in the hospital and leaving them in the less than caring arms of Annabel. Along the way, we get to meet Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), a generically-drawn, psychiatrist with less than pure intentions when helping the girls; his methods betray more interest in the occult and historical hunches concerning Mama's origin than in healing the obvious trauma of those in his care. When the film does turn to telling Mama's backstory, it's firmly in debt to all things J-horror, trying on the painful loss and accompanying desire for vengeance motif found in Ju-on, Ringu, and Retribution to drive its ghost to do that voodoo that she do(es) so well. Anyone who went through even a minor love affair with Asian horror of the 90s and 2000s will find Mama incredibly derivative, lacking any new contributions to the way these kinds of films operate.
Mama's biggest failure, though, is in its inability to flesh out its characters. Every single one, including Chastain's at first ridiculously moody then instantly maternal Annabel, is a two-dimensional cutout functioning more in terms of the needs of plot mechanics than as an organic, reasonably believable human being. Mama expects the viewer to recognize how such characters are supposed to act within horror flicks, rendering them in a lazy fill-in-the-blanks fashion. It's as if Muschietti forgot (or perhaps never understood) the division of labor within the director/author to audience relationship. Maybe ol' moneybags Del Toro should have reminded him that those of us staring up at the screen aren't the ones responsible for telling the story. As it stands, Mama's a muted, ho-hum slog to the bottom of the heap. Mama needs a brand new bag.
Mama opens at the Portland area theaters on Friday, January 18th. More info available here.
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