Note: This piece contains spoilers.
My wife and I arrived late to Andres Muschietti’s Mama, but not late enough. A series of trailers even more inane and noisy than usual reached its nadir with one for a film called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which endows the brother and sister of fairy tale fame with a vast armory of swords and gatling guns and sends them out on a loud and gory witch hunt filled with blood, explosions, and general mayhem. Nothing could have been further in tone and style from the film we were about to see, and yet Mama shares a number of key elements with the Grimms’ story from which Hansel and Gretel takes its name. Mama begins with the fairy tale formula, “Once upon a time…,” and then it tells the story of a pair of children abandoned in the woods and fed by a monstrous mother figure. From this premise the film diverges from the fairy tale’s plot, but not from its spirit, as the children go on to contend with the horrors of growing up in a world haunted by adults.
Though Mama does not ultimately succeed as a film, it does offer a set of rich possibilities for the creation of a modern fairy tale, one that, like those told once upon a time, faces the horrors of everyday life head on, also recognizing the power of fantasy to make imaginative sense of those horrors. In the Grimm Brothers’ tale, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents because they can’t afford to feed them. Muschietti’s story begins with an overheard radio broadcast announcing a killing spree launched by a man whose fortunes were devastated by a stock market plunge. The man turns out to be the children’s father. After he flees with his two girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), the family hides out in an abandoned, snow-covered cabin. There, a surrogate mother—who is as much a grotesque parody of the clinging bourgeois parent as she is a perverse childhood fantasy made flesh—adopts the children. Mama announces her adoption in classic fairy-tale fashion, by rolling a ripe, red cherry to the children. This symbolic offering is as red as blood, yet sweet, tempting, like the apple offered to Snow White by the Witch.
Philip Pullman has said “your life begins when you are born” but that “your life story begins at that moment when you discover that you are in the wrong family.” This is the premise of all good children’s stories: once the parents are out of the way, fantasy begins. What makes Mama so rich in potential is its complex understanding of how inescapable the parental presence is, and how fantasies often end up giving more substantial form to the anxieties we had thought to escape. Once the girls are found and adopted by their uncle and his reluctant girlfriend (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Jessica Chastain), they are exposed to parental forces more messy and complicated than the ghostly figure they’ve grown up with. Mama continues to assert her presence in their new home, and she seems to be a lot more fun than the adoptive parents: the children are heard laughing and singing behind closed doors, and the younger girl, Lilly, often giggles when she catches a glimpse of Mama’s ghostly movements. This mother has conformed to the desires of her children, rather than the other way around, though the children will soon find that, in fantasy as in reality, love is haunted by possession.
The children’s early development is brilliantly portrayed in the film’s title sequence through a series of pictures drawn by the girls. In them, we see the children learning to survive, becoming more animal-like as they age. One striking image shows them attempting to eat a rat: the younger girl throws it up, and the older girl cries. Later, the girls themselves become four-legged creatures, as they gradually stop walking upright. This sequence shows the evolution of humans in reverse, and offers a rich commentary on the strange world of children. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who goes down a rabbit hole to discover herself, these children are of the earth, driven by primal needs and desires. When they are found by humans, they scuttle around like four-limbed spiders, hiding in corners and under beds. Although the film is largely about childhood fears concerning parents, it is also about parental fears regarding children, and asks the question pondered by many parents at one point or another: who are these strange creatures living in my house?
Like other folklorists, the Grimms collected their tales from families in small villages. Their work was spurred by concerns that urbanization would destroy the rural culture from which such stories sprang. The best fairy tales retain the presence of the wild woods that separated such families from modernity and change. Forests are depicted as a source of danger in the tales, but also as places of mystery and magic. Though most of the forests that fostered the original fairy tales have been cut down and sold for timber, their spirit survives in the tales themselves. In a sense, they are a metaphor for the imagination itself: wild, untamed, and haunted.
Mama is at its best when it lets the story brood on such elements. The most effective visual effects are those half-seen, barely glimpsed, and shadowy. Mama’s presence is signaled by moths, sometimes singly, other times in ominous swarms. She travels by way of mold and mildew, which spreads from dark corners into the center of walls. These dark spots congeal and darken to become wound-like holes from which slimy claws emerge. The domestic becomes wild, and the children are at once the victims and the bearers of this dark forest magic. Their would-be adopted mother jokes at one point that the girls are “outdoorsy.” Their faces are always dirty, marked by the rot and filth of their earthy mother. Mama is real because she is dirty.
Once the character of Mama takes more of a visible, human-like role in the story, she begins to lose her magic, largely due to the besetting sin of modern film: CGI. It may be my age, but I have never been able to suspend my disbelief when digital animation intrudes on live action. Even at its most accomplished, such moments are no more convincing to me than Dick Van Dyke dancing with cartoon penguins in Mary Poppins. This is most glaringly seen in the film’s conclusion, which is unfortunate, as the ending is so daring in other respects. Suffice to say that we do not get an entirely happy ending, and this shows more of the true spirit of the stories of “once upon a time” than of Hollywood. Like a fairy tale, the story acknowledges that death happens, but also like a fairy tale, it offers a rich and strange image to help us make sense of it: the spirit of the departed is movingly transformed into a colorful moth who flies into the night.
Mama was originally due to come out in 2012. If it had, it would have been the third of the year’s most intelligent takes on the fairy tale tradition. The most orthodox of these was Snow White and the Huntsman, a film that exceeded my (admittedly very low) expectations as much as The Hobbit disappointed them. Snow White‘s success largely derives from its clear respect for the source material. Unlike Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, it endows the Grimms’ story with a fast-paced action narrative that retains the fairy tale’s complex narrative logic, and it doesn’t compromise the traditional moral fabric or the original. It also breaks from Hollywood convention by offering a truly compelling female protagonist, one who is heroic, but not simply because she adopts traditionally masculine attributes. These qualities are also shown by the year’s other compelling update on the fairy tale, Brave. Though marred by extended moments of broad humor entirely out of spirit with its main narrative, this animated epic succeeds when it’s at its most Grimm, as in the scene depicting the film’s heroine playing in the woods with her mother, who has been transformed into a bear. When the bear-mother becomes too involved in their play, her animal side suddenly takes over, and she nearly attacks her daughter. Such moments capture the strange and sinister qualities of parent-child relationships. Like Brave, films like Mama are not afraid of exploring these dark places, and they show the enduring power of the fairy tale to give form to the deepest fears shared by children and their parents.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.