A young boy struggling with loss. An outsider who brings the opportunity for healing. A journey that mixes the fantastic with the real. This describes any number of child-centered stories from cinematic classics like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and The NeverEnding Story (1982) and new releases like The Water Man (2020). These films offer an opportunity for families, especially those with small children, to explore topics that might be otherwise difficult to find a starting point. Returning to Sundance since his 2006 film Journey from the Fall screened, writer/director Ham Tran brings Maika, an adaptation of a Czechoslovakian television program (Spadla z oblakov (She Fell from Clouds)) that grew to be popular in Vietnam. For him, this story isn’t just one that might be a jumping off point to explore grief and healing, but a measure for him to do so as well as he began this project some time after his own mother passed. With this lens, his approach to Maika is one of imagination and introspection wrapped into a familiar package.
A year ago, eight-year-old Hung (Lai Truòng Phù) lost his mother and the loss continues to haunt him. It certainly doesn’t help that his father, Thanh (Ngòc Tuòng), is so busy trying to keep his business afloat to keep them from being evicted from their home that Hung spends most of his free time with neighbor My (Khánh Như). When she and her family move out of the apartment building, Hung is left to his own devices. That is, until late one night during a meteor shower, he notices a strange purple object hurtle across the sky and land at a nearby lake. Traveling there, he finds not an object, but a young girl-looking alien who calls herself Maika (Chu Dièp Anh). But Hung isn’t the only one looking for what fell from the sky, so between them and the hustlers looking to push all of the residents out of Hung’s building, neither time nor safety is on their side.
Being unfamiliar with either the original 1970s television program or the 1967 children’s book the show was based on, I come to Maika as a blank slate. Given that we see a snippet of the original tv show in a scene before Hung meets Maika, I have to tip my hat to Tram for what will undoubtedly be received as a cute easter egg for Vietnamese audiences. I also appreciated it for what appeared to be an almost recreation of the scene later in the film. Moments like these signal just how connected Tram is to the material that he’s included references while making something new. The film itself maintains that heart, that child-like innocence for the duration, never faltering or coming across as false at any moment. To a large degree, Maika reminds me of another recent child-centric story involving aliens, Robert Rodriguez’s We Can Be Heroes (2020). Maika, like Heroes, involves human and alien contact, yet both films are treated as introductions of hope, rather than fear, even if as an eventuality. Take the opening of the film which begins with the death of Hung’s mother: the cinematography and production design is such that one doesn’t feel threatened or concerned. There’s loss, of course, but Tran maintains focuses on the closeness of the characters, specifically Hung and his mother. In fact, my favorite moment is one that functions as both a lovely emotional beat and a significant narrative tool when Maika offers to erase Hung’s pain. In this scene, Maika actually takes the time to explore why remembering our loved ones is far better than forgetting them entirely. There’s no extraordinary or overbearing weight which cinema can add to any scene. Even the later scenes with the land owner’s goons aren’t particularly scary, just shot with the kind of menace that implies their bad intentions. That the whole film maintains this light and airy feeling throughout is impressive, even as the tale dips into the more narrative trod aspects of children’s storytelling.
Particularly as a child of the ‘80s, the more of Maika I watched, the more I thought of *batteries not included (1987) and Spy Kids (2001). And for differing reasons. The subplot in Maika involving land owners trying to push tenants out of their homes only to be blocked and teased by an extraterritorial being is something I remember all too well in *batteries. Similarly, the animation used throughout the film is inconsistent in appearance, some blending in nicely, while others are so unaligned with the physical materials to give off a sense of distortion. And yeah, I couldn’t help but be charmed with it in the same way Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, and even his newer child-centric film We Can Be Heroes, feature animation that isn’t necessarily meant to trick the mind from knowing what’s real and what’s not, but to tap into the imagination of the child audience. So while the animation doesn’t impress on the same level as mixed-medium Scooby-doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004) or Real Steel (2011), I don’t for a moment suspect that the targeted audience will notice as much as the adults. Frankly, the way in which the computer-generated effects seem out of sync with the physical materials may just be the thing that the target audience remembers most, considering it a beloved aspect in the same way we look back on stories of our youth that don’t quite hold up as adults. Family stories don’t have to be perfect, they just have to capture your imagination, which Maika does quite well.
All in all, there’s little about Maika that feels fresh or invigorating as far as the subset of children’s films goes. It treads the same path many films before it have done, but that doesn’t make it any less fun or emotional. Most importantly, there’s no sense that the target audience won’t have a good time with it, too. Who doesn’t love the idea of meeting an alien who loves scarfing down sugary treats, going on roller coaster rides, and trouncing bad guys? Who doesn’t love the kind of predictable happy ending-type tale that not only entertains, but offers a chance to start a conversation about loss and love? One doesn’t have to know the source material to engage with or enjoy that.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.