Universal // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // December 16th, 2008
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen.
Mamma Mia! was released as the ultimate counter-programming to the big action films of summer 2008 like The Dark Knight. It's the exact opposite of the bleak brooding competition, resembling a day-glow drunken celebrity karaoke lovefest. Twenty-two ABBA songs wrap around the story of a middle-aged woman facing three of her loves while her daughter plans to get married. You couldn't ask for a more giddy experience, and the international box office exploded with the film earning $569 million dollars (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com). Mamma Mia! even overtook Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in October 2008 to become the highest grossing British film of all time in the UK. It set a new mark for the biggest weekend premiere ever for a movie musical in the United States with $27.6 million defeating previous record holder Hairspray. The gist of this one is it's fun to watch people sing ABBA songs in a fabulous setting with lots of pretty colors. Mamma Mia! proves that having a good time is all it takes sometimes to win big at the movies.
It's a simple little plot designed merely to give a framework to the songs, but it does get hard to describe in a way. Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls) is about to get to married, and she decides she would like to have her father there to give her away. She lives on a Greek island with her mother (Meryl Streep, Doubt), running a hotel, and the problem is according to mom's diary there are three possible fathers thanks to one amorous summer. What's a dancing queen to do, but send out three invitations? So in come three potential fathers, and mamma Donna has to confront her past while planning her little chiquitita's future. The three men are super troopers who seem each convinced they are the proud papa, and Sophie seems to admire the trio equally. There's rugged Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgard Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), slick New York banker Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan, GoldenEye), and uptight English accountant Harry Bright (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary). Meanwhile Donna has reunited with her two best friends who used to be in an Abba cover band with her called Donna and the Dynamos. Intellectual writer Rosie (Julie Walters, Educating Rita) and plastic surgery obsessed Tanya (Christine Baranski, Cybill) are there to provide counsel to Donna throughout. And let's not forget the very literal Greek chorus full of locals who break into song and dance in a heartbeat.
The songs include:
"I Have A Dream"
"Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" [instrumental]
"Money, Money, Money"
"Fernando" (only hummed briefly by Donna before entering the goat shack)
"Our Last Summer"
"Lay All Your Love On Me"
"Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)"
"Does Your Mother Know"
"Slipping Through My Fingers"
"The Winner Takes It All"
"Under Attack" (instrumental)
"Knowing Me, Knowing You" (instrumental)
"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do"
"When All Is Said And Done"
"Take A Chance On Me"
"Mamma Mia (Reprise)"
"I Have A Dream (Reprise)"
"The Name Of The Game"
"Thank You For The Music"
"Dancing Queen (reprise)"
The cast and crew is an amazing melange of big names and fresh faces. Mamma Mia! was almost Grease 3 with both Olivia Newton-John (Grease) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2) up for the lead of Donna. In the end producers chose Meryl Streep who had been a big fan of the stage show after seeing it on Broadway right after 9-11 with her kids. Streep was moved enough by the joy of the musical to write the producers and tell them what a good job they were doing lifting spirits in New York during some dark times. Oddly enough, Christine Baranski's character in Cybill had been the basis for the stage persona of Tanya, and here she gets a chance to play what she inspired. 007 legend Pierce Brosnan had no idea what he was signing up for, and merely had to hear the words "Meryl Streep" and "Greece" to seal the deal for him. Mandy Moore, Amanda Bynes, Rachel McAdams, and Emmy Rossum were all considered for the part of Sophie, yet in the end the role went to Amanda Seyfried because she looked young enough and had a folksy voice the men of Abba approved. Director Phyllida Lloyd had managed the stage play, and this is her first feature film. Producers included the two original women who went broke trying to get the musical staged, and are now a couple of the wealthiest birds in England (probably only trumped by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling).
Mamma Mia! reminds me a bit of Moulin Rouge! in that both use established songs we already know, and combine them with a story that is all heart and hardly any head. The reason this one has worked so well is it appeals to a wide swath of people with a young romance and more importantly a middle aged woman's love story . It is rare to see Meryl Streep get a chance to play the romantic lead these days since she's pushing 60, and that aspect of the film works. She gets the most to do, and she's the one you want to see. By doing this what they have done is made a musical that will appeal mainly to the people who remember fondly the decade when ABBA was big. They were the ultimate slick pop group in the '70s, and younger generations seem to have embraced them somewhat as well as their parents. You can certainly hear their influence on sugary pop girls like Britney and Miley, and yet ABBA remains unique with their tight harmonies woven around a wall of sound.
Mamma Mia! The Movie comes fully loaded, and is but one option of four to get this film on disc. You can pick from a single disc widescreen version, the fullscreen edition, and the BluRay. But this version offers a ton of extras that will make any fan perfectly happy. Deleted Scenes only offers minor beats cut from the film, and some seem strange since they do not have the musical elements in place. Outtakes only lasts about a minute and a half, but shows you some of how much fun these guys had on set. The Making of Mamma Mia! is a nice featurette which generously interviews all the major players, and tells us about some of the process that went in to developing the stage show for the big screen. Anatomy of a Musical Number shows us how they created "Lay All Your Love on Me" with the young leads. Becoming a Singer documents the fact that these poor people pretty much were just let loose in the studio to sing like they would without any training. "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" has a music video which actually uses footage of Amanda Seyfried in a studio and on the streets of NYC. Bjorn Ulvaeus cameo shows us the quick appearance of the "other man" from ABBA that was not shown in the film like the one for Benny. A Look Inside Mamma Mia! the Movie is a more studio contrived feature on the development of the project. On location in Greece is self explanatory, and shows us some of the ways they made Greece look like paradise. Included is a digital copy for those of you who want to have the option to have this one in your pocket for long commutes or plane rides that demand ABBA. The director's commentary by Phyllida Lloyd is insightful, but sometimes falls in to the trap of describing too much what is happening rather than stories from on the set. She's a bit dry, but genuinely knows her stuff since she directed the play as well. The deleted musical number "The Name of the Game" is included. A Sing-a-Long Feature sounds more fun than it is, since really what they do is just provide subtitles for people who need prompting through some of the more obscure songs of ABBA. Something tells me if you want to join in this badly you probably already know most of the lyrics. The only version that offers more extras is the BluRay, but even it only adds a pop-up trivia track and some comparisons with stage and screen. You should be more than fine with what is included here, and not feel like the DVD version has been slighted in any way.
Technically the DVD delivers a fine transfer, one that may work on this format more than the high definition one. There's not much edge enhancement, since most of the film is striving to look soft enough to not make viewers realize the age of the actors. Apparently they don't want you to dwell on the fact if Meryl Streep has a twenty year old daughter it means she was conceived when she was in her forties. So the solution? Basically make things look like some vaseline is smeared on the lens like they used to do back in the day. Of course in 2008 that means digitally making the image look soft rather than hard edged. That aspect will detract from the BluRay, but works easily on DVD. Colors are insanely bright, but bleeding doesn't seem to be a big problem. Everything looks good, and I can't imagine DVD viewers will be let down by this image. The five channel mix is centered in front speakers without much happening in the other parts of the room.
This is a really silly musical, and a big fan of ABBA will realize the songs are dumbed down with simpler harmonies and less orchestration than the original incarnations. What made ABBA unique is lost here, since we don't have enough occasion for their "wall of sound" approach to harmonies. Everything sounds thin by comparison. And let's face facts, the Swedish super group were influenced by the dissolution of two marriages which informed their hits. Their lyrics are more complex than what this thing offers. The story is far too simple and it resolves all too easily in the climax. When you dissect the film there's almost no reason to think of it as a good movie. The actors are hamming it up, nobody is a spectacular singer, the cinematography is obvious and sometimes mangled, and the whole thing should inspire cringes rather than smiles. Yet somehow despite all this the exuberance of the film trumps the faults.
One word of warning: nobody was given much vocal training in preparation for this movie. It works fine for trained singers like Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Amanda Seyfried. The one to fear is the rather awful Pierce Brosnan who sounds like someone is killing a goat, and yet somehow that is part of the whole charm. The men in the film sing exactly like a guy would do if he had one shot too many and decided to sing ABBA to a girlfriend or wife. Brosnan, Skarsgard, and Firth are not in any danger of making the transition to musical stars. It's too funny to hear the director in her commentary compare Pierce to Tom Waits, but she fails to realize Waits wouldn't be caught dead wailing his way through "SOS" in a cheeky musical.
A big goofy colorful ball of cheesy fun, Mamma Mia! The Movie works on a silly level few modern musicals can match. It takes songs most people know far too well, and puts them through their paces with a star studded cast croaking them out as best they can. In some cases like with Meryl Streep it shows what a trained actress can do with a pop song, and with others like Pierce Brosnan it gives him a "license to kill" the tune slowly and painfully. Yet I dare you not to smile throughout the whole thing, because for some reason even the bad singing and paper thin plot can't hide the joy these actors feel partying in Greece and making a musical. Vincent Minnelli would have approved of the bright colors swirling through spectacular Greek locations with hundreds of local extras hand jiving behind the leads. This one works, and Mamma Mia! The Movie offers you the most bang for the buck.
Guilty of making me have ABBA songs stuck in my head weeks later, Mamma Mia! is infectious fun that is hard to resist.
Review content copyright © 2008 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Musical Number "The Name of the Game"
* Deleted Scenes
* The Making of Mamma Mia!
* Anatomy of a Musical Number
* Becoming a Singer
* "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" Music Video
* Bjorn Ulvaeus Cameo
* A Look Inside Mamma Mia! The Movie
* On location in Greece
* Sing-a-Long Feature
* Digital Copy
* Official ABBA Site
* ABBA World
* Cinema Verdict Review