Original US release date: July 18, 2008
Production budget: $52,000,000
Worldwide gross: $609,841,637
Before watching the film for this column, I had more knowledge about Syrian Aramaic than I did regarding the plot of Mamma Mia!. I knew who comprised the majority of the cast and I knew that it was an adaptation of the musical stage play that was based on the music of ABBA (I suppose there’s really no reason not to have one of those, right?). But I had absolutely no idea what it was actually about. And I never would have guessed it on my own, either.
When Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is approaching her wedding day, she sends invitations to three men – Bill, Sam, and Harry (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, respectively) – one of whom she has deduced must be her father. After they show up for the ceremony, Sophie’s mother Donna must reconcile her past loves and losses while trying to determine what – and who – may lie in her and her daughter’s future.
In general, I like musicals, as nonsensical as they are. But there are different styles of musicals. Some musicals are crafted in such a way that nearly every line is delivered in song. Others are a mixture of spoken dialogue and musical pieces, and that’s the category under which Mamma Mia! falls. I personally prefer that style, though that’s a matter of preference. Yet, the validity of my preference is supported by this film as dialogue is much easier to understand when spoken than when it’s being sung. While Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly Lost in terms of narrative complexity, I still like to be able to listen to dialogue without straining or sustained effort. Here, the important dialogue is spoken clearly and advances the plot while the songs from ABBA’s catalogue are used to support the themes and emotions. If one misses the lyrics, it’s not a huge deal. That makes for a more relaxing and easygoing viewing experience.
The cast is of an impressive pedigree, as noted above. They do a fine job and seem to be having fun. They’re in a musical, so singing talent is preferred and they mostly deliver on that front with good to great vocals, depending on the performer. Only Pierce Brosnan is truly lacking in that area, and director Phyllida Lloyd (that’s a lot of consecutive Ls, there) compensates for that by making sure that his singing is generally drowned out by the score or blended in with a chorus whenever he gets to a particularly difficult or tricky passage. And despite what modern music “connoisseurs” would claim (why do so many people only consider their own era’s entertainment as “good”, especially when it comes to music?), ABBA’s product is actually lots of fun. I was familiar with some of it – the biggies like “Dancing Queen” and the title track – but even the ones I hadn’t heard before were catchy enough to be entertaining. All in all, the presentation was a fun little ride.
The narrative is fun, as well, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes. In some regards, it’s predictable. And it’s also somewhat formulaic when looking at the larger arc. But the story excels in the small things – the little character moments and interactions, the pacing, and the quirkiness of it all. It isn’t groundbreaking cinema in any sense of the word but it is consistently bright, cheery, and attention-holding from beginning to end.
Speaking of “bright”, the cinematography as well as the direction by Lloyd are largely responsible for establishing and maintaining the uplifting, energetic tone throughout the duration of the film. The sparkling color palette almost single-handedly exudes a perpetual sense of joy and lightheartedness. It’s actually a bit disappointing when the story takes a brief detour at the end of the second act in order to indulge in some token drama. It’s out of place and feels a bit forced when contrasted by the constant rainbow of hues, up-tempo Abba songs, and all-enveloping hopefulness that defines the film otherwise. Lloyd also pulls delightfully cheeky performances out of her cast. All of the principles receive equal development and screen time and each does their part to contribute to the overall production and deliver a fun, escapist 100 minutes of entertainment.
I didn’t necessarily expect to hate Mamma Mia! but I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The film was recently featured as a selection in the nationwide Flashback Cinema program that runs classic films in theaters. I didn’t catch it then, but I found it to be a surprising choice and that was when I decided to catch it when I could. I don’t regret that decision and, while I’m not going to be naming it as one of my all-time favorite musicals, it is certainly a good time that can help get one’s mind off of the daily grind for a couple of hours.
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