Thursday 12 September 2013

Mama (Spain/Canada 2013: Dir Andres Muschietti)

Two children, Lily and Victoria, are abandoned in a woodlands hut after their father goes off the rails, and 'raised' by a strange and ethereal figure - the Mama of the title, who in an early scene shows herself to have, shall we say, a fiercely overprotective attitude to her new charges. Some years later the two children are found - in a semi feral state - by their father's brother. He rehabilitates them back into the real world, moving them into his home which he shares with his girlfriend, the bass playing (and reluctant surrogate mother) Annabel.

Annabel fairly quickly realises that something's afoot and that the childrens' references to Mama having followed them from the forest may be more than simple wish fulfilment on their part. Her own eventual development of a maternal instinct towards Lily and Victoria stirs Mama's vengeful side, leading to the inevitable showdown between good and evil, the real and the unreal.

As Executive Producer, Guillermo del Toro is himself an ethereal presence guiding the directorial hand of Argentinian newboy Andres Muschietti to create a fairytale feel to the film, which disguises its rather by the numbers story of a wraith hell bent on revenge: Mama has been extended to full length from a short 2008 film of the same name, also by Muschietti, which is a whole lot creepier for its brevity.

The early scenes are the best, with the eerie presence of the spirit fleetingly shown and punctuated by some genuinely creepy sound effects, and there's a lovely scene where the giggling children are briefly glimpsed playing with Mama through a door left ajar but then furtively closed to maintain privacy. The now obligatory revealed history of the spirit robs the film of much of its potency, and actually doesn't make too much sense - why would she angry enough to survive the grave? Towards the end Mama is revealed in all her CGIness, which is where the film ultimately fails in a swirl of mist and soaring Danny Elfman-esque strings. The final veil of credibility for me was stripped by noting the wraith's more than passing resemblance to Geordie funny man Ross Noble.

Acting wise the kids are the best thing in it, particularly Megan Charpentier as older sister Victoria, who does a lot to sustain audience belief in what they're seeing against the increasing ludicrousness of the plot. I just didn't believe Jessica Chastain as a rock chick (she's far more credible when she mellows later in the movie) and someone needs to tell film makers that in these days of the ubiquitousness of tattoos, having ink on your arm is no longer visual shorthand for being 'hard'.

Mama isn't a total misfire but it does blow its last reel with a pomposity that's pure del Toro. It could have remained creepier longer if the director had shown more restraint, but the story probably wasn't strong enough to allow for that. Shame.

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