Also known as My Big Musical Wedding, Mamma Mia! is the latest jukebox musical to grace the screen, following last year's Beatle-based musical Across the Universe. While the two films share similar inspirations, they succeed at wildly differing levels. While the Beatles musical took us on a journey through the turbulent era of the '60s, from the growth of the peace and love movement through the protests of the Vietnam War, the ABBA musical is all about the surface fluff, never giving us characters to root for or care about as everything has an absolutely sunny disposition.
I do not doubt that there are many people who love the relentlessly cheery and happy atmosphere that this movie provides, but I am not one of them. Of course, I am clearly not a member of the target audience, so if you are a member of the fan community, you will likely not want to continue reading this. I will say that I entered into my contract with the film by purchasing my ticket with the best of intentions. I wanted to like it; sadly, it failed to win me over.
Mamma Mia! began life as the music of Europop outfit ABBA, who released eight albums between 1973 and 1981. In 1999 the music took on a life larger than its own when the play opened on the London stage. Writer Catherine Johnson found a thematic thread woven through a number of the group's songs; she took this thread and married it to the plot of the 1968 comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, flipping some of the core points, but the general idea is there.
The resulting musical turned out to be a huge hit in London and on Broadway. Its popularity combined with the resurgence of musicals over the last few years all but guaranteed that it would be filmed for the big screen. Director Phyllida Lloyd was up to the challenge, bringing her experience from directing the stage show.
The story is a simple one that tells a tale of self-discovery and believing in oneself, that it is more about who you are than where you came from. It is bright, sunny, upbeat, and will lift your spirit in spite of yourself. I know I had these conflicting thoughts while sitting there — on one hand I did not care for the shallowness of the characters, not believing they could be as thick-headed as there were, and not being a terribly big fan of ABBA did not help, but it is also hard not to be drawn in by the sheer cheerfulness of the whole thing.
Well, back to the story. The setting is a small Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) and her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried of Veronica Mars and Mean Girls), operate a rundown inn. We catch up with them in the middle of the final preparations for Sophie's wedding, which is set to happen the following day. As the guests begin arriving it is revealed that Sophie has a big secret.
You see, Sophie does not know who her father is, but by sneaking a peek in Donna's old diary, three potential candidates have revealed themselves. So, being the curious young woman that she is, she invites all three to the wedding, figuring that she will know who it is when she sees him. Now, nothing goes according to plan, and when Donna finds out these three men from her past are there, well, everything just hits the fan, in a blast of song and smiles, of course.
Yes, the film is well shot and yes, the cast seem to be having an absolute blast, but I still felt like I was held at arm's length. Where I should have been invited in, it was like the story did not want to dig into anything deeper than the loose top soil of the characters, thus preventing me from developing any type of attachment or desire to see more.
The singing was adequate throughout, although, if I ever have to listen to Pierce Brosnan sing again, it will be too soon. Meryl Streep was full of energy and was clearly having a blast. However, the high point of the cast would have to be Amanda Seyfried, and while I cannot say I particularly cared for the movie, she was a shining light, possessing great screen charisma. I suspect we will be seeing more of her in the near future.
Bottom line. If you are going to like this, you probably already know who you are; I am not going to change your mind. I also do not have the heart to rip it apart, as it is not deserving. I will just settle for saying that it has a specific audience in mind and I am not it.