Let’s get one thing out the way: Mamma Mia! is not a particularly good film. It has a number of very obvious weaknesses that would usually relegate it to the rubbish dump of film history but – and it’s a big but – you’ll probably love every second.
Some films seem to possess an indefinable energy and enthusiasm that overwhelms critical thought and overcomes bad filmmaking to ultimately charm their audiences. Such is the case with Mamma Mia! The Movie.
Based on the stage musical which opened in London in 1999, the film is built around existing hit songs by Abba and a rather flimsy story.
Young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing to marry her boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper). She lives on an idyllic Greek island with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) who runs a resort. Her life is perfect except that she has never met her father. Snooping in her mother’s diary, Sophie discovers three potential candidates and secretly invites them to the wedding. The three men arrive on the island, shortly after Donna’s two old girlfriends, which of course results in all kinds of relationship hi-jinks.
The plot, very loosely inspired by a 1968 comedy called Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell starring the great Gina Lollobrigida, is terribly contrived and obviously constructed to fit in with the requirements of the songs. In other words, Mamma Mia! is a film based on a musical based on a film; not an auspicious pedigree.
It however has a thing or two going for it: The songs from Abba’s vast archive of global hits are at the heart of Mamma Mia! There’s great pleasure seeing them re-invigorated in a new context. From Dancing Queen and Take a Chance on Me to The Winner Takes it All, they really are works of pop genius and you’ll have to possess a cold heart to not enjoy the music.
And then there is Meryl Streep. Without a doubt the most versatile great actress of our time her seemingly boundless radiance jumps out of the screen in Mamma Mia! She sings, she dances and she acts her heart out – and seems to be having a blast doing it. Her enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.
It’s because of her that the film’s emotional core comes to life: the changing relationship between a middle-aged mother and her blossoming child who is preparing to start her own life. It’s a fragile undercurrent but this dramatic idea has some real weight and pathos thanks to Streep – despite all the musical silliness. Her moving performance of The Winner Takes it All is remarkable.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves well. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski (remember her from Cybil?) amusingly play the fools as Donna’s friends, while Amanda Seyfried is both strikingly beautiful and genuinely captivating in her performance as the young bride-to-be.
A serious casting misstep is Pierce Brosnan as one of the fathers. His singing – sounding something like a straining constipated donkey – is so embarrassingly mangled that it’s almost unbelievable. It’s probably the worst musical performance I’ve ever seen on screen and Brosnan clearly feels awkward in the role.
The film includes a little nod to its gay audience – and, of course, Abba’s massive gay fanbase – towards the close. It’s somewhat clumsy but well-intentioned within the context of the romantic musical in which everyone must find their happy match by the end.
Mamma Mia! boasts a generous amount of eye candy – from travelogue shots of the Aegean, complete with clear blue sea, rocky islands and gorgeous sunsets, to a horde of often-shirtless young guys in the supporting cast. Throw in Abba’s toe-tapping songs, Meryl Streep at her liveliest and a ridiculously enthusiastic cast and it’s like a reinvigorating Greek seaside holiday and musical all in one.