Universal // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // December 11th, 2008
Take a trip down the aisle you'll never forget.
I remember the summer of 2008 like the back of my hand. A film, based on a musical, based on the musical stylings of the Swedish group ABBA, was released as counter-programming to The Dark Knight. So what happened? The comic book film made all the cash, right? Well Mamma Mia! made three times its North American box office total of $143 million, which means over $500 million worldwide, more than Quantum of Solace and Wall-E, and almost as much as Iron Man. So what's it look like in high definition?
Catherine Johnson, who helped create the musical, put together a screenplay for the film that was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, an acclaimed theatre director making her feature film debut. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls), engaged to be married, decides she wants to invite her father to the wedding, without the knowledge of her mom, Donna (Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter), who owns a hotel on one of the Greek islands and used to be one part of a girl group whose supporting members are Rosie (Julie Walters, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Tanya (Christine Baranski, The War). The problem with Sophie's idea is that Donna slept with three men around the same time, so she's forced to send three letters, to Sam (Pierce Brosnan, Die Another Day), Harry (Colin Firth, Fever Pitch), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard, Ronin), informing them of her wishes. But imagine what happens when all three show up and offer to walk her down the aisle! Aside from all of the singing, of course.
When watching movies, the viewer tends to have a certain level of suspended disbelief, falling into line with what the story is trying to convey, and allowing themselves to be pulled into the characters lives and environment like the warm waves of the sea. But at some point it becomes too much. Trying to suspend disbelief when it comes to Mamma Mia! is the trying burden on the viewer.
For one thing, isn't a story supposed to have some sort of conflict to it? We get that Donna doesn't want her ex-acquaintances around, and Sophie wants to have her Dad there, but each of them communicate their intentions so loudly and cheerily it seems like they were mainlining energy drinks off-camera.
The music, while entertaining (I know how much money ABBA has made through the years, so I'm not going to begrudge them, because I want to be put in the will), is quite frankly borderline excessive. Some of the placement is interesting and unexpected, but because there's wall-to-wall ABBA, it seems to take the acting out of the actors' hands, almost to the point where it's like they're in front of their bedroom mirrors lip-synching. But they're not of course. They're singing for real. And how about that singing? Seyfried has much better pipes than I was expecting, not only delivering the songs exceptionally, but this performance is one that should open up future doors for her. Brosnan is as, um, out of place as you have been hearing. If Randy Newman and Neil Diamond combined sperm to fertilize one of Elvis Costello's eggs, this would be the baby. Past that, the lack of proper acting is a shame, because there are a lot of reputable names among the cast.
Production values do make the film appealing. It's shot in Greece (with soundstages doubling as Donna's place), providing a very musical feeling, with exaggerated backgrounds and lighting. Johnson did the easiest thing she could by making this a musical stage of sorts and letting the work do the rest. Pity the work wants to ooze through every still moment of the film.
Universal's first musical film on Blu-ray (that I'm aware of) gives us a 2.40:1 VC-1 encode. The disc does manage to show off the exterior shots rather well, with a lot of background depth, particularly when Donna takes Tanya and Rosie up to the hotel, and the long shot of lights leading up to the church where Sophie is supposed to be married. There's a lot of color displayed over the film's 110 minutes and it's reproduced quite well, even though there's a slight touch of oversaturation in some areas. If anything, the soundstage scenes appear to be the weakest, with quite a bit of image softness. Visually, that's the only thing holding the film back. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround track is solid without being spectacular. The songs are crisp and clear with a dynamic range and occasional subwoofer engagement. Dialogue is firmly placed in the center channel and strong throughout, while directional activity/speaker panning is also evident. It's a musical, so for it to sound anything less than satisfactory would have been extremely disappointing.
Since when did Universal break out a bunch of extras? Not that I'm complaining, of course. It's just a surprise. Lloyd's commentary for the film is loaded with information that the subsequent supplements don't cover, recalling a lot of what occurred during the production and working with the cast and crew. If you liked the film, the commentary is worth listening to. The U-Control feature includes two main features: The "Behind the Hits" piece is a pop-up trivia track during the musical numbers which includes performer information, along with trivia on the group and the album where the song appears. The other is a Picture-in-Picture track which delves into the production and includes a lot of stage footage compared with the final product. It's Universal's version of an In-Movie Experience, but this footage appears new and separate from the supplements. The deleted scenes (8:06) are decent but don't really add anything to the final cut, while it's nice to see some outtakes (1:33) which include Streep. The making of piece (24:05) covers the struggle of getting the play realized to film, while the cast shares their thoughts on the difficulty of it all. "Anatomy of a Musical" (5:42) features Lloyd's recollections on the production, while "Becoming a Singer" (10:55) views the actors as they get their voices ready for the film, and the challenges of getting the notes and harmonies right. "A Look Inside Mamma Mia!" (2:40) includes the cast's thoughts on ABBA, and there's a music video (3:49) here as well. The BD-Live content gives you the chance to chat with other users who are also watching the film (pretty cool) and record your own visual commentary that serves as a picture-in-picture track. There's also a digital copy on the second disc for your enjoyment, along with the ability to sing-along with the music while the movie is playing, so there's a variety of fun to choose from.
I like to think of myself as an optimism vampire. I'll watch musicals and other upbeat films, drain them of their optimism, and use it to charge my batteries. That explains why Amelie and Hairspray are among my video library. Yet, for all its faults, I still kind of liked the film and was smiling as it went deep into the second act. I liked the song choices and how they fit into a particular scene, the larger dance numbers ("Dancing Queen" in particular) warm the heart, and I almost found myself humming along, while my wife was fully singing at times. So I'll tell you that falling into the trap of enjoying the film and forgiving its faults is an easy one, but you really should try to avoid it.
As far as musicals go, Mamma Mia! has got a long way to go and a shorter time to get there. While the songs are fun and some of the performances (particularly Seyfried's) are commendable, the film basically strings along the songs with little or no meaningful dialogue. Technically, it looks and sounds strong, and the supplements really enhance the enjoyment of the film. If you like the film, I'd grab this without hesitation, but I think that other recent musicals have accomplished more of what Mamma Mia! set out to.
Put the Volvo in the garage and move on, OK?
Review content copyright © 2008 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes/Musical Number
* Making of
* Music Video
* Director's Commentary
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review