“Mama” feels like a cheap Del Toro knock-off

Mama Guillermo Del Toro
The latest offering from Spanish filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro follows two feral little girls, abandoned in the woods with none but the mysterious “Mama” to watch over them for five years. When they are finally recovered by their uncle and his reluctant girlfriend, the two sisters bring Mama back with them.

By any measure, this is a disappointing film from Del Toro. His previous horror movies have pushed the boundaries of the genre, offering fantasy, tragedy and a strong emotional resonance. While I generally wouldn’t fault Del Toro for making a more traditional movie, I expected more from him on the storytelling front. He decided to produce (and help rewrite) Mama after seeing a short-film version, which – though incredibly creepy – did not have anything in the way of plot. But the figure of the terrifying “mama” figure caught his eye:
Del Toro has previously explored the mother-child relationship with great success. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the mother was full of love for her children, but weak, sickly and therefore absent – unable to protect them. So little Ofelia took it upon herself to try to rescue both her mother and baby brother. In The Orphanage, a frantic mother dedicates herself to finding her lost son, while another woman is consumed with rage and despair after her own child is stolen from her.
Mama Lily Victoria girls cabin

In Mama this dynamic is revisited in an incredibly shallow way, and without the mystery or charm of Del Toro’s other films. There are several creepy moments in Mama, but for the most part, little characterization and buildup are given that the movie is often unintentionally comical. The opening segment that shows how the girls came to live in the woods is so devoid of context as to seem completely bizarre.

Additionally, I felt very put-out by the awkward plot maneuvering to get Annabel (Jessica Chastain) alone with the girls, and remaining alone with them long after it ceased to make any kind of sense. Their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has been tirelessly searching for the girls for 5 years, and already has a connection with them based on the fact that he looks exactly like their late father. But it is immediately understood that his girlfriend, who has neither the skills nor the inclination to be a mother, will set aside her passion for music and stay at home with them. She is left with two severely traumatized girls as Lucas inexplicably heads off to work, though it has already been established that he works (i.e. “paints pictures”) from home. And for good measure, let’s send him off to investigate – something? – in the woods, just to make sure that Chastain is left alone even longer with the girls.

Jessica Chastain Annabel Mama
And why? Because men can’t/shouldn’t be afraid of the bogeyman? Because we derive some kind of satisfaction from watching a vulnerable woman tiptoe around every corner? I find that kind of “horror” to be cheap and unsatisfying. And in the other two movies I mentioned, Del Toro explored messages about love and family, adding elements of mystery and narrative depth that were non-existent in Mama. This is particularly disappointing from a filmmaker who allegedly thinks very deeply about the purpose and meaning of horror. From a 2011 interview in Time Magazine:
“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.”
Maybe I missed the point, but I failed to see how any part of Mama was anti-establishment: “crazy” mothers and the mentally ill are demonized (though notably, disturbed and violent fathers are given a pass — “Save the girls” he says, what a change of heart!); young women who are relieved not to be pregnant must be cured of their unconventional ways and give in to the biological need to parent; and men must remain on the outside of the tight bond between mother and child.
In a 2012 interview with /Film, Del Toro detailed the themes behind Mama‘s development:

I always imagined the sort of tagline for the concept, which was “A mother’s love is forever.” [Laughs] Because it absolutely immediately, for me, made it something relatable, like “all mothers turn into horrible things at some point,” and then you reconcile and it can be great or not. I thought the idea of that surpasses any origin. It’s such a strong thing that ultimately what this creature has is possessive love you know? A mother’s jealousy is really, really strong.

This is a surprisingly simplistic and reductive point of view from an extremely talented filmmaker, and I think it speaks volumes about what kind of message you’ll find in Mama. So go for a cliche, occasionally creepy, and somewhat sexist hour and a half, but don’t expect the quality you’re used to from Del Toro.

23 thoughts on ““Mama” feels like a cheap Del Toro knock-off”

  1. Interesting take on the film. My review goes up tomorrow and I clearly liked it more than you although its far from flawless. I didn’t get any of the anti-woman/pro-man vibes that you got. I didn’t feel it was sexist not did I ever think the mentally ill were being demonized.

    1. Ugh didn’t mean to post yet! Wasn’t finished LOL! But my bigger point was I certainly didn’t see violent fathers getting a pass. That open sequence was chilling and that father was portrayed as a murderous wacko about to do the unthinkable. I never felt they were trying to make us feel an ounce of sympathy towards him. Only towards the girls.

      But I may be totally missing it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. LOL!

      1. Disclaimer: What follows is an over-think. I felt the movie was average and by-the-numbers, so my mind had lots of time to wander to its hidden messages.

        The portrayal of the girls’ father just felt odd to me. His performance was very sympathetic, with the small exception of his rough “Be quiet!” in the car. They never actually showed him being violent (the mother murdered and we don’t even get to see it, or her body), just sad, tense, anxious, hounded. You kind of feel sorry for him and wonder what’s driven him to this. And then later in the dream he gives Lucas a clue and says “Save my girls!” But since when does he want to save them?!?! Let’s completely disregard the fact that he’s a domestic abuser (I’d call murder abuse, wouldn’t you?) and make Mama the bad guy of the film.

        And Mama herself was given zero characterization. She was in a “hospital for sad people,” and murdered her baby (thanks for allowing ANY ounce of mystery – let us believe it’s Victoria for a minute? Or the girls’ real mother?). Okay, but what about the wrong she was supposedly trying to right (or that “ghosts are an emotion” tripe)? Was her baby unfairly stolen from her? Was she wrongly locked up? Give us something other than “mothers are crazy and possessive” to understand why Mama is the way she is (and why her 1870s cabin has modern furniture). Del Toro flat-out said in an interview that his whole inspiration was “all mothers turn into some horrible thing.” Okay fine, but why? Flesh out the idea and make it real, rather than some off-hand quip. Make me BELIEVE that all mothers are awful, and then maybe tie that in with Annabel and build in that kind of movie poetry we usually get from Del Toro. It was just a shallow ghost story which, though serviceable as a standalone, is extremely disappointing from him.

        The sexism (slight overstatement but it’s there) came in the form of their treatment of Annabel. She VERY clearly does not want children at all, possibly ever, but that sentiment, along with her membership in a band, are portrayed as youth and self-involvement. Not overtly, but through her flippant attitude and the way that she later becomes a mother, is transformed by their love, blah blah barf whatever.

        Without even having a discussion with Lucas about it (that we see), she quits her band and becomes Susie Homemaker. He was a painter! He painted AT HOME. Why was he not staying home with the girls?! It was just such an obvious plot device to shoehorn a new mother-daughter dynamic in the mix when it would have made much more sense for them to bond with Lucas. Chastain did a great job with the role but there was just so little there for her to work with. Maybe if she had been their aunt (and looked just like their mother?) it would have felt more organic, but as it is the fact that Uncle Lucas is such a peripheral figure feels kind of cheap and backwards – like a man can’t have that tight relationship with his kids, he needs to be off at work while the mother cares for them.

      2. AND there was that major parallel between Mama and the father (depressed parent attempting murder/suicide), but while hers makes her into an angry spirit, his story is used as a simple plot device to get the girls alone in the woods. HMM.

      3. Maybe I was off but I never felt an ounce of sympathy for the girls’ father. He went off his rocker due to some financial collapse and had commuted the inexcusable. As to the off screen killings, I really didn’t need to see them. Hearing it alongside the little girls was really effective for me (plus its a PG-13 movie and that could have pushed that a tad too much).

        As for Annabel, I simply felt she was realistic. I never thought she was representing EVERY mother. I know better. There are several women in my life whose love for children is just incredible ( my wife and mom most notably). But the reality is there are many women like Annabel. I’m not judging them. It’s their choice and their way. But I felt the movie showed a loving motherly self-sacrificial impulse within her that changed her.

        And I do agree that mama’s backstory was pretty muddled. But I felt she was made into a sympathetic character in the end. She was clearly wronged and her spirit was part revenge-fueled and part lost soul hence the need to “right a wrong”.

        Anyway great discussion and I’ll be honest, I’d like to see it again in case I’ve completely missed the boat. I think your case against it is pretty intriguing.

      4. Was Mama wronged? All we know is that she was committed to an asylum, broke out, and committed infanticide/suicide. “But she wasn’t buried with her baby!” The baby she KILLED. Meh. If there had been some ambiguity to her villainy (like The Grudge mom?) maybe I could get on board, but it just felt very one dimensional.

        And while I think the idea of women who are not inclined to parent rising to the occasion is realistic (and that Chastain brought a bit of depth to a poorly written role), there was no narrative reason for her to be forced into that situation. Lucas TOTALLY should have been the primary parent there.

  2. The horror genre has been the most challenging for films to nail. I can count on one hand the number of REALLY decent ones we’ve had in the past decade, and it’s not a lot. There needs to be a serious shift and boost in originality to make this genre work anymore :\

    1. We occasionally get a great one, which is then imitated 20 more times before filmmakers find something new. But I loved Cabin in the Woods for attempting to answer the question of why we always return to those tired old cliches. Great horror/comedy and interesting deconstruction of the genre.

    2. Courtney, check out my horror section on my “Obscure Recommendations” page on my blog, and I have some horror movies you may like. There are some good european ones out there; if you haven’t seen them you should definitely check them out. “High Tension” and “Inside” are particularly intense! 🙂

      1. Yeah, I saw that Tippi reviewed the article and I wrote her a reply, as well. I was addressing you about your comment regarding the lack of originality in horror movies, which is true. I just wanted you to see my list b/c I thought maybe you haven’t seen some of those titles that I feel are pretty original, particularly the european ones.

  3. Awesome review! I’m gonna wait on DVD for this one, I hear the score is excellent. I also read the film relies on jump scares, which is probably the cheapest tricks in horror films right now :/

    1. Thanks! The film does have some great atmospherics, but you’re right, there are a truckload of cheap scares. Check out the original short film above and you’ll see a condensed version of what works – the rest is really just filler.

  4. Excellent review — it’s beautifully written. This movie seems to have a lot of potential, but for it to work it needs — as you said — to have “the mystery or charm of Del Toro’s other films.” It’s too bad it didn’t measure up. And crap, I *hate* movies that rely on jump scares.

    1. Yes! Del Toro’s other films each have moments that feel like a sucker punch to the stomach, where you really care about the characters and feel the tragedy of what’s on screen. Nothing about this movie felt worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Orphanage (I like to pretend Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t exist either, but even that’s not as bad as Mama!).

  5. That’s a really good point you made about Annabel’s character not wanting to be a mother, and the film kind of forcing those instincts. I too, was really let down by this. I felt it could’ve been so much better.

    1. I read an article about how in Mama and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (terrible movie), Del Toro focuses on the “reluctant mother” and how they rise to the occasion. That might have worked if he really was exploring the nature of motherhood – beyond “all mothers are terrible” – and giving more thought to Mama’s motivations and justification, more background and sense to Chastain’s plotline, and at least a cameo of some kind to the girls’ real mother! I actually think the movie would have been improved exponentially if they’d let us wonder whether Mama was a ghost, Victoria’s split personality, or the girls’ real mother.

  6. Really enjoyed this review, and I agree that your review is a very interesting take on a very average (or less than) horror film. I tried really hard to get into it, but nah… no good.

  7. Tippi, I’m not sure you’re remembering events of the story right – unless I’m missing something – but Lucas WAS the primary parent there until Mama scared him and he fell down the staircase and was rushed to the hospital where he was in the ICU. That was when Anabell was forced to be the primary parent. It didn’t feel like it was being sexist. It seemed like the thing a good girlfriend would do for her boyfriend under the circumstances.

    And the concept of the story was all about mothering – and Anabell started growing into a mother for these two girls. Sure, the primary plot was about this ghost mother being “Mama” to these abandoned little girls in a cabin in the woods, and the coming back for them after they’re moved – but the secondary plot accompanying that was how Anabell started growing motherly instincts of her own; the instincts that caused her to put her own life on the line to protect those children the same way a blood mother would do for her children.

    So, I guess I am saying I don’t find this movie sexist at all. It is called “Mama” and not “Papa”. It is about mothering, which is done by a woman.

    And I don’t think this movie in any way made men out to be superior to women. After all the man fell down the stairs and was in the ICU recovering for however long – when a woman took over the situation and protected the children. If anything it’s the opposite; it glorifies woman and displays her strength! Anabell was a strong woman. Why do you think they got such a strong actor to play the role? 🙂

  8. I know my dad would disagree cause he always over thinks these movies, but I thought this was the best creepy movie in about a decade..I loved how animalistic the kids walked on their hands and feet, makes me look at my nephew in a different light as he walks the same at times *shiver* lol
    Didn’t care for the ending though, it seemed a cop out and I sure don’t like sad endings!! I wish that they’d make a book for those of us who just gotta know why!?! Why was mama that way? What set the downfall in motion for the dad to commit murder? Etc. I have been pondering different plots and alternative endings to make this story into a book since I watched the movie on Saturday, just so I can have some closure 😉

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