Sunday, July 20, 2008

From the Archive: "Mamma Mia!" Film Review

Film Rating: C

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Mamma Mia!”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Mamma Mia!”
Originally published July 20th, 2008

The Broadway musical Mamma Mia! has been seen by over 30 million people worldwide, grossing over 2 billion dollars, so obviously, it was only a matter of time before a studio decided to cash in and make a movie.  Heck, they could have aimed a camera at the stage, shot the show, and released it into theaters and it still would have made millions of dollars.  Actually…that’s the problem.  The filmmakers have done little more than that.  And hey, guess what?  It’s already made 100 million dollars worldwide. 

Let me tell you, right off the bat, that I am not the target audience for this movie.  This film is aimed at women, mostly women over the age of 30; women over the age of 30 who are also familiar with the songs of ABBA is the specific audience.  Despite me falling only slightly into only one of those categories (I’ve heard some ABBA songs, but I’m not exactly ‘familiar’ with them) I still enjoyed parts of this movie, and if I could learn to switch “Critic Mode” off, I probably would have enjoyed it more.  So while I’m not the target audience, I’m not biased against it and I’m going to give this movie a fair review.

That being said, let’s start with the movie’s main problem.  It’s not a good ‘movie.’  This sounds harsh, but what I’m trying to say is that, as a film, the movie fails.  It feels like a Broadway show lazily put on film.  There’s something inherently flawed in bringing Mamma Mia! to the big screen.  The show strongly reeks of Broadway.  I haven’t seen the Broadway show, but after watching the movie, I can see it being one helluva good time.  As a stage show, Mamma Mia! is most likely excellent (why else would 30 million people see it?).  The problem is, the movie makes no effort to translate the typical stage conventions into something more suitable for film.

The musical tells the story of a young girl named Sophie who is getting married; the only problem is, she doesn’t know who her father is.  So she invites three men from her mother’s past to the wedding in an attempt to find out who her Dad really is.  Interwoven into the plot are some of ABBA’s best songs and biggest hits. 

Making a musical out of the songs of a band is no easy feat.  My central complaint with the film version is that while all the songs are performed well and with plenty of spunk and energy, many of the songs feel out place.  When Meryl Streep starts belting out “Money Money Money,” my first instinct was to ask “why is she singing?”  Donna (Streep’s character) and her two friends are talking about her daughter’s wedding, and then there’s a comment about the hotel Donna owns being in poor condition.  And suddenly…they’re singing.  Why?  Well, I’m not sure.  Because the song was not written for the story, it has little relevancy to the goings on. 

Of course, it’s easy enough to forget this and enjoy the singing, but when the characters constantly burst into song without any build-up or warning, it becomes annoying.  This happens with “Dancing Queen,” “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” “Does Your Mother Know,” and “Take A Chance on Me.”  With “Dancing Queen,” (which I’ll admit is an infectiously delightful number) there is, at least, a precedent for singing, but the song itself doesn’t totally fit the situation.  It feels slightly out of place.  Some of the numbers, like “Mamma Mia,” “Our Last Summer,” “SOS,” “The Winner Takes it All,” and “When All is Said and Done” are integrated seamlessly into the story, and that’s when the movie really shines.  But the fact that some songs feel random and don’t fit is a flaw.

On stage, this is totally excusable.  You go to a stage musical to hear people sing, plot be damned.  But you can’t get by with that in film.  Film and Stage are two very different mediums, and the film of Mamma Mia! is done in the same way the stage show is done.  The pacing is identical to a stage show; some characters will sing, exit, and be replaced by supporting characters who will sing while the main characters change costume.  There’s overacting and silliness that would be excusable on Broadway, but has no place in a movie.  It’s a lazy way to do a musical adaptation; last year’s Sweeney Todd also started as a Broadway show, but the movie felt like a movie, not a stage production.  When the movie was over, I felt cheated.  So much of the movie felt like a stage show; I enjoy stage musicals, but the reason you see stage musicals is to experience the show live.  Movies are not performed live, which is the appeal of a stage musical. 

I could elaborate, but you get the picture; Mamma Mia! is a fairly lazy adaptation, and feels to much like the stage show to be called a quality film.  Despite that, the film is still very entertaining in parts.  Even when the songs are out of place, the cast do a great job with them, and it’s fun to hear these ABBA songs preformed in this manner (which was also the appeal of the stage show). 

Meryl Streep leads the cast as Donna, and…wow.  She can sing.  I guess it turns out there really isn’t a role that Streep can’t tackle.  She does a great rendition of “Mamma Mia,” and injects a huge amount of emotion into “The Winner Takes it All.”  Amanda Seyfried plays her daughter, Sophie.  Seyfried has the best voice in the whole cast, and I wish she could have had a few more songs, but it’s a small complaint.  Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, one of Sophie’s possible dads, and he also has a surprisingly good voice.  My favorite number in the movie is “SOS,” which is primarily sung by him.  Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard play the other two dads, and while they don’t get as much to do, they do it well.

The target audience I described earlier will have a great time; I saw this with my mother, who said it was the most fun she’d had at the movies all year.  Having grown up with the songs, she had a great time seeing them appear in a new way.  Having the opinion of someone from the target audience is certainly helpful in writing a review of the film.  While it’s obvious that the target audience will enjoy this, all the flaws I pointed out could have been improved upon without diminishing the entertainment factor.

I have some more complaints, most of which I won’t waste your time with.  I will, however, say that the film is lazy in more ways than just feeling like a Broadway show.  The choreography is often creative, but often boring or strange.  The “Mamma Mia” number features Meryl Streep….having a seizure?  That’s what it looked like, anyway.  The film’s director also directed the stage show, and it’s obvious that she was at a loss on how to adapt some dance numbers to film.  “Dancing Queen” looks good, as does “Voulez Vous”; it’s a big crowd dancing in unison, which works on film or on stage. 

The songs that are choreographed with a number of camera angles and are filmed in many locations work best, because they feel like a movie (“SOS” being the prime example).   But some songs, like “Mamma Mia” or “Honey Honey” just feel awkwardly choreographed.  “Lay All Your Love on Me” is an excellent cover, but the choreography is just weird, going from boring to silly.  Because the covers are uniformly excellent and the choreography varying in quality, the soundtrack is actually more enjoyable than the movie.

It’s a bit of a disappointment that I can’t give this film a higher grade.  The material has the potential for a really great summer musical like “Grease” or “Hairspray” (both of which were originally Broadway shows).  But Mamma Mia! is lazy in its adaptation.  If you are a member of the target audience I described, then I recommend the movie.  You’ll enjoy it.  But if the filmmakers had put some work into actually adapting the material so that it becomes suitable for film, than I probably could have listed this with the highly enjoyable aforementioned summer musicals. 

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