★★ / ★★★★
After a businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kills his wife, he takes his two children, age three and one, in an attempt to escape from the police. Panicking and driving too fast on an icy road, Jeffrey loses control of the vehicle and it skids off a cliff. Miraculously unharmed, Jeffrey and his two girls find a secluded house. It appears to be an excellent hiding spot. However, minutes after they step inside, one of the girls claims that there is a woman standing outside… whose feet are not touching the floor. Five years later, Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is informed by the search party that Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) have been found.
Although it has the potential to excel either as a dark fairy tale or a horror film, it strives but fails to embody either. As a result, the tug o’ war between them turns “Mama,” based on the screenplay by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti, into another forgettable scary movie about kids being haunted by a supernatural force and the adults having to save them.
The director, Andrés Muschietti, knows how to set up scenes that lead up to worthy jolts. It helps that the majority of the happenings occur in a house that is big and often dark. Combine the environment with the girls’ animal-like behavior that they have learned from having to live in extreme isolation for years, there is a genuine threat when a camera keeps still and the background is wide open to be occupied by someone or something which, at least according to Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), is an imaginary guardian that the girls have created in order to cope.
We learn that the so-called guardian, which the girls named Mama, is anything but imaginary. This is where I began to feel detached from the picture. Instead of taking a more imaginative and challenging route of us having to doubt conclusions and figuring out for ourselves whether this creature is real or imaginary, it is eager in providing easy answers. By doing so, it uses CGI, from the dark, veiny markings on the wall to the creature itself, to scare us. There is too much CGI so the images lean toward silliness rather than creating a genuinely terrifying experience.
It uses familiar scary movie tropes. Enough with the flickering lights already. Every time the lights turn on and off, it is certain that something bad is going to happen. Because it is unable to break out from what we expect, the would-be scary scenes are reduced to waiting games. Partner this tired technique with loud, screeching noises when the scary thing finally makes an appearance, it gets annoying real quick.
The third act is like a soap opera. When everyone starts crying, it is supposed to be moving. But the tears are not earned. The screenplay does a disservice to Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Victoria and Lilly’s new mother figure and Lucas’ girlfriend, who is established as tough and strong during the first half. In the latter half, we see her reluctance and eventual determination to save the girls. Annabel having be reduced to tears during the final confrontation with the monster is phony. I did not buy it for a second. Chastain does what she can with the role, but the way her character is forced to behave while saving the girls is cheese inside and out. I was not moved; I felt myself slinking away, feeling very embarrassed for what was happening.