Mamma Mia! (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)
Mamma Mia! delivers exactly what one can reasonably expect from it. It's a faithful adaptation of the stage play of the same name but, more importantly, it's a repository for ABBA songs - nearly two dozen in total. Considering that the average running length of each of these songs is between two and three minutes, that means about 2/3 of the film is singing, with the remaining 35 minutes (or so) devoted to insignificant things like exposition and dialogue. Mamma Mia! is relentlessly cheerful and unapologetically campy, and will find its strongest (and perhaps only) adherents among the group that looks back fondly on ABBA.
Mamma Mia! mostly avoids the pitfalls that tripped up Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Both films suffer from the same structural problem - trying to fashion a screenplay around numerous pop songs - but, where Across the Universe tried to be artistic and substantive, Mamma Mia! is content to wallow in nostalgia and cheesiness. So, while Taymor's ode to the Beatles felt long and tired, Phyllida Lloyd's effort is the cinematic equivalent of a fireworks display: transitory but, while it lasts, bright, loud, and crackling with energy.
The story really doesn't matter, but the existence of one, regardless of how thin it is, differentiates this from a star-powered concert film. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper). Raised by single mother Donna (Meryl Streep) on an out-of-the-way Greek island, Sophie has never known her father. Now, after reading pages from her mother's diary, she has discovered three possible candidates: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). Since she doesn't know which of these men is her dad, she invites all three to her wedding. When they arrive at the island and encounter Donna, singing and dancing ensues.
I suppose the appeal of Mamma Mia! is not unlike that of Xanadu. Neither film can possibly be taken seriously on any level, so it's just a question of how much silliness and camp one is willing to endure in the name of entertainment. Personally, the sight of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård dressed in the infamous "ABBA costumes" of the '70s (something that doesn't happen until the end credits) is worth the price of admission. Considering the impressive array of talent lined up to get this movie on screen, not the least of whom is Meryl Streep, most of those involved must feel the same way.
Nearly every ABBA Top 20 hit is woven somewhere into the fabric of the screenplay. Some are integrated better than others. A few, such as "Dancing Queen," are forced into the proceedings simply because they're too well known to be ignored no matter how out-of-place they are. There's a lot of dancing as well, and it's of the over-the-top variety. One particularly memorable number features a line of men clad only in swimsuits and flippers showing off their muscles. There's also a literal Greek chorus that's used to bolster songs that need an extra "umph" beyond what the principal singers provide.
No one is dubbed. What you hear is what you get. Amanda Seyfried has a nice voice and, perhaps surprisingly, Meryl Streep can hold her own. (There's also a dance number that has her perform a mid-air split. Amazing.) After that, however, things get rocky. Colin Firth may have caused women to swoon when he played Mr. Darcy, but that's probably because he didn't sing in Pride and Prejudice. And Pierce Brosnan doesn't need his Walther PPK - all he has to do is open his mouth and belt out an ABBA tune for the results to be devastating.
Visually, the movie doesn't do a lot. The gorgeous island setting provides an impressive backdrop, and some of the stage-bound garishness of the play is toned down. The camerawork is simple, with Lloyd preferring longer takes to the flash-and-cut approach favored in many recent motion picture musicals. The benefit of the approach is that it gives us an opportunity to concentrate on the actors. There's something enjoyable watching such an impressive group making asses of themselves and thoroughly enjoying the experience.
Mamma Mia! is being offered as counterprogramming to The Dark Knight, and it would be hard to find two more dissimilar movies. In terms of quality, the Batman Begins sequel is the better option, but Mamma Mia! is, in the purest sense, more fun. It's airheaded just like the songs it embraces but, if you enjoy them, there's every reason to believe you'll appreciate the film.
Mamma Mia! (United Kingdom/United States, 2008)
Cast: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski
Screenplay: Catharine Johnson
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures