Mamma Mia! (2008) **1/2*

Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 48min
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep
Genre: Comedy
Language: English

Squeaky Clean and a Bit Oversold

In a Nutshell

Plot

Straight as an Arrow
Twisty

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear
Incomprehensible

Who's That?

Few Main Characters
Lots

Naughty Words

Mild
Foul

Naked people

None
Lots

Violence

Tame
Bloody

1. It’s so much cooler in the theatre.

2. The Greek islands are gorgeous, any time of year.

3. Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) has an effortless, creamy voice that makes a bland ballad sound better than it is. She is simply adorable.

4. “Dancing Queen” really makes it as an over-the-top production number, unspoiled by choreographic affectations, a pure joy.

5. The phenomenon of female bonding is more poignantly and delightfully explored (in two generations) than in any episode of Sex in the City. Special kudos to Julie Walters (Rosie) and Christine Baranski (Tanya) as the red-hot sidekicks of Sophie’s Mamma, in the trio of “Dynamos”.

6. The deployment of an impromptu “Greek chorus”, weathered islanders, fin-footed snorklers, or bikini-clad bacchantes is such good fun.

7. How about a line from a matron to describe young Sophie’s thong: “Does she wear it, or floss with it?”

8. More than 30 million people around the world have seen the stage version of Mamma Mia! You don’t want to feel left out.

9. The out-takes of aging hippies in spangles belting “Waterloo”, and the lovely Seyfried singing “Thank You for the Music”, over the credits, are almost worth the price of a ticket.

10. MERYL STREEP IS IN IT!!!!! When Streep (Donna Sheridan) appears at the door of her crumbling island paradise with a broom, she outshines the Adriatic sun. This woman is incapable of a false moment. Working purely from inner fire, carried along by tremendous acting skills, she moves, she sings, she speaks with immediacy and truth no matter what ridiculous action she is asked to perform or whiny, poetically anemic torch ditty she is required to turn into a fully realized operatic aria.

Mamma Mia! was adapted from a 1968 film starring Gina Lollobrigida and brought to the London stage by another inspired trio of women (Judy Craymer, Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson) in 1999, and became a huge international hit in the genre of “jukebox musical”. The story is about a girl — raised in Greece by an ex-pat single mom — who wants to determine which of three liaisons produced her before she herself weds. The music is by the Swedish pop group ABBA that riled adolescent hormones through the 1970s. It is clean, innocent, without a note of grunge or heavy metal, and rather refreshing to hear now in the film version for which Lloyd and Johnson teamed up once more.

Reason 1 why the movie doesn’t get more stars: at its best, ABBA powers a positive, beat-driven, melodic energy that can bring out the exuberant child in anyone. At its thinnest, the group delivers a Hallmark greeting card for a tune. Even Streep has to work hard to make it pay off and Pierce Brosnan (Sam Carmichael) doesn’t even come close. The basic weakness of the music and lyrics is probably more exposed in cinema than live production. You wonder why Donna and Sam burst into song instead of just saying what’s on their mind.

Reason 2 is directorial. There is a Disney World quality to the scenic wonder of the setting — which needs no help. The characters and the situations they find themselves in (hanging from rooftops) are surreal, meaning that they often look like and might as well be animations. Perhaps this is a failure in translating the material from stage to screen where “more” tends to be “less”.

Reason 3 arises from a pre-Lloyd-Weber, pre-Disney understanding of what a musical is and is not. If your gold standard is South Pacific or A Chorus Line, then Mamma Mia! will fail the test. If you’d enjoy a lot of special effects at a kiddie rock festival with a plot, then see it for sure. Or maybe just go because Streep is in it.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.

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