‘Mama’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 18th, 2014 at 3:48 am,

Mama 2013 starring Jessica Chastain Mama Review

What we do get is about 60 minutes’ worth of very good and effective ghost story, made to look less attractive by the 40 minutes of fat hanging off of its middle.

Mama is the lastest horror movie to carry the prestigious stamp of being “presented by Guillermo del Toro” – following in the tradition of such films as The Orphanage (2007) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). Mama tells the story of Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), two little girls whose tragic family history leaves them stranded in the woods for five years’ time.

When their father’s twin brother, Lucas (Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), finally tracks the girls down, it seems like the reunion is a small miracle; although Lucas’ punk-rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) isn’t too thrilled with the sudden shift from starving artist to maternal figure. It doesn’t help things when Annabel begins to suspect that the girls may not have been fending for themselves out there in the woods. Something watched over them, and is still watching over them in their new home; an entity the girls only refer to (in secretive whispers) as “Mama.”

Jessica Chastain Nikolaj Coster Waldau in Mama 2013 Mama Review

Typically with these “del Toro presents” films, the acclaimed filmmaker uses his clout to both support a creepy/frightening tale that caught his macabre attention, while also helping to showcase the work of a freshman feature-film director. Stepping up to bat this time is Andrés Muschietti, the writer/director who made the 2008 Mama short film that this feature-length version is based on. Muschietti proves himself to be a visual and conceptual talent, and his film is definitely boosted by the talent of Chastain (in her pre-Oscar nom days) and the two young actresses who serve as its stars. However, while the concepts, acting and construction of the film all show hints of great skill, the execution of the storyline is where Mama fails to capitalize on its own potential.

In terms of direction, Mama is a pretty strong debut for Muschietti. The cinematography is dark but vibrant (full of earthen tones) and the sequences are all visualized and constructed in sharp, creative ways. Most of the film is confined to two locations (the woodland cabin where the girls are found and a house where Lucas, Annabel and the girls are living) but how Muschietti chooses to use these set pieces and the tight space therein is fairly smart and engaging most of the time. Instead of the usual ‘calm by day, scary by night’ progression, we instead get a lot of clever scare moments executed at all times of day (even broad daylight), using angles and framing to give even mundane moments (like doing laundry) a creepy edge.

Jessica Chastain Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier in Mama Mama Review

Jessica Chastain, Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier in ‘Mama’.

Given the choice to use an ever-present antagonist (ghosts tend to lose their mystique the longer they hang around) and two child characters who are more unnerving than dangerous, Muschietti ultimately settles for a film that is consistently creepy, but only seldomly frightening. By the time the film reaches its over-blown conclusion, it has fully shifted from horror story to dark fairytale, and any scare-power it had in store ultimately dissipates into conventional drama. Despite that fizzle at the end, however, much of Mama is (as stated) pretty creepy.

A lot of that creepiness can be attributed to the young leads, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse - who play Victoria and Lilly, respectively. As the older of the two, Charpentier has the more difficult task of being the conflicted sister, torn between memories of her past life and her time with “Mama.” The part calls for some intense interrogation scenes with psychiatric professor Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) and moments of both menace and childlike vulnerability. For a such young actress, Charpentier holds her end up well enough.

Since Lily spent most of her formative years in the woods, with no memory of life beforehand, Nélisse is given the much more fun task of playing the perennially creepy, snarling, untamed wild-child – a task she most definitely embraces wholeheartedly. Lilly will make you laugh, gross you out – and now and again, freak you out as well.

Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier in Mama Mama Review

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets to have a bit of fun in his brief blips of screen time, playing both the half-mad father of the girls and the more sensible twin uncle; after certain developments unfold, he even gets a few moments worthy of a guest spot on House M.D. That is to say: this is mostly Chastain’s show.

It’s doubtful that Muschietti and Co. knew that their starlett would be such a big name by the time their movie was finally released, but aside from the extra star-power Chastain brings to the film, her quality acting skills carry a lot of the movie in between the girlie/ghostly scare moments. She’s good enough that Annabel’s arc from bitter babysitter to fierce lioness protecting her cubs is a solid and relatable through-line that grounds the half-cooked supernatural mythos.

“Half-cooked” is a term that can indeed be applied to much of Mama‘s narrative. The film is frustrating in the fact that the script – by Andrés, his sister Barbara, and TV scribe Neil Cross (BBC’s Luther) – has a strong core story (the powerful effects of maternal instinct) and a great mythos built on top of that; solid foundations that the script totally undermines by adding too many extraneous bits.

Dr. Dreyfuss interviews Victoria in Mama 2013 Mama Review

Instead of focusing on Chastain and the girls, Mama in many ways presents us with three major story arcs – Annabel, Lucas and Dr. Dreyfus – only, by the end, one of those arcs has been tied-off abruptly and unsatisfyingly; another is abandoned completely, and the final one (as stated) spins right out of horror into full-on melodrama  - but hey, at least it’s completed in full, right? (FUN FACT: If you watch the Mama trailer after seeing the film (watch it below) you can actually find out the resolution to part of the story, which didn’t actually make it into the theatrical cut.)

At 100 minutes run time, Mama isn’t exactly epic in length – yet it still shows the sort of fatigue and confusion that can often appear when one tries to stretch a short film out to feature length (see also: Shane Acker’s 9). While short stories allow for the quick introduction and immediate payoff of great core concepts, longer formats of storytelling require a pacing and careful balancing of time and attention that Muschietti just can’t quite get right. What we do get is about 60 minutes’ worth of very good and effective ghost story, made to look less attractive by the 40 minutes of fat hanging off of its middle. It’s regrettable since there is so much that the film does well, but as it stands, Mama is just a fairly good time, and would not be a bad call as a future rental.

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Mama is now playing in theaters. It is 100 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)

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  1. I just came back from seeing this movie. in my opinion it deserves a 4, I enjoyed it a lot.. but I agree, the story was dragging, not to mention the ending which was pretty weak. it’s still an enjoyable movie :)

    • I really wanted to rate it higher, I did. But the fact that the story completely loses its way with all the extra bits, I couldn’t.

      • I see your point. it can still be a good time at the cinema is what I’m saying. especially with a full room of people ;)

    • Is it actually scary is my question i

      • Scared the heck out of me, and I normally don’t get scared watching movies. As with most Del Toro horror movies, it provides the right amount of jump scare with the perfect amount of creepy. 4/5 from me imho.

  2. I don’t want to get off topic but I’m worried about del Toro going all John Woo and stamping every crap project that comes along with his name out of some misguided sense of symbiosis. The movie gets more attention, and the name gets a broader definition, right?
    Too often both elements get diluted.
    Anyway this movie sounds about like what I expected. Maybe I’ll give it a watch if I resuscitate my Netflix membership down the line.

  3. I thought the movie was slow. The story takes forever to develop and by the time it does it feels too late. I think it’s a horrible movie for Del Toro to be associated with(the Del Toro stamp) much like how Taratino placed his stamp on The Man with the Iron Fist. Both seem alike in their flaws with the boring plot/story, nothing really stood out, and the ending of the movie was lackluster. I agree with the score of a 2.5.

  4. Great tense scary film
    …with a bad fantasy like ending.

  5. I thought the movie played along an old fashioned route with very little blood and shocks galore! The two actresses who played the feral girls Victoria and Lilly were both very good. I think if a movie director can chill you with scary images and nothing graphic, he is doing a very good job. I thought Jessica Chastain was very good as reluctant mother Anabell and her reactions to that scary mother were spot on.

    • thanks a lot dude

    • Alright, I was hoping someone would spoil the ending. Thanks buddy!!!

  6. Christ, WTF? Nice spoiler.

  7. Guys if you want to avoid spoilers from now on dont read comments on reviews.

    • WELL screenrant usually has a whole discussion section for each movie solely for the purpose of spoilers. AND yes you can review a movie w/o giving away the ending.

  8. It was a very cool idea. Again, the acting was great. The ghost background shots were fear building, up close, the ghost was a bad cgi and disappointing. The movie, like many rushed to explain the story. The librarian explaining ghosts.. too convenient. Ending was horrible, another case of the writer tired of thinking or writing and ultimately giving up.

    Yeah I thought it was going good till about half way through and it started to sway away from “scary movie”. I jumped 1 time.. And the Ending was not good.
    And without giving too much away, I didn’t like the whole “mama” thing. Since how the movie started, it should have ended up being the 2 girls mother. What a waste of story arch there. The story would have been more acceptable and believable IMO… Overall the best part of the movie was Chastain. Great actress, great job! This movie is not really worth a night at the theater while there are movies there to see like; Hansel n Gretel 3D, Zero Dark Thirty, Django, Gangster Squad, Broken City, The Hobbit, Parker, Etc.

  10. The movie was quite disappointing to me. Well crafted, but it was sort of deja vu. I’m really missing Del Toro as a director!

  11. Is it bad? me and boyfriend are going to see or I might say thinking of seeing it on valentines day.

  12. Good Review! Check out mine. Like or comment if you’re so inclined :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVdB0xg69tk

  13. the movie was complete crap

  14. It was a great movie, the only thing that kept bothering me was that you could see it was daytime in the windows when it was supposed to be night. Other than that it was great.

  15. Movie sucked big time.
    Explain how the kids were never afraid of Mama? Even after what she did in front of them?
    Would have been a better flick if those kids were adopted and THEN “Mama” came to reclaim her kids

  16. I did not like this movie, it was pointless. I though that this was the only scary movie that had a good plot, but, when I go to see a scary movie, I don’t look for movies with a plot. I look for movies that will make me scared when I go to sleep. I though they should of put more scary scenes in the movie, instead of focusing on the plot so much, a scary movie is called a scary movie for a reason.

  17. Loved this movie! Except I didn’t like the ending. I thought it was gonna end up all happy when Mama got her old baby back. But stupid Lilly had to scream “Mama!” And Mama turned around, grabbed her and then she fell to her death with Mama. But the other girl is still alive. 4 1/2 stars out of 5. Made me jump several times.

    • nice spoiler there Jen

  18. I thought it was a good watch ( even had a little jump at one point)

    no new concepts, but a decent ghost story..

    until the last 30 seconds…come on!! surely the worst ending to a film ever.

    There may be some reading this who havent watched the film, so i wont go into detail but the end was totally far fetched and unbelievable, Strange things happen in a ghost story, but that was just wrong.

    spoilt the film for me, and left a bitter aftertaste, on reflection I would say it is worth watching for the rest of it.