Mamma Mia!

"Take a Chance on Me" may be one of its most celebrated songs, but little risk is actually involved in "Mamma Mia!," a predictably glossy screen adaptation of the Abba-scored musical.

Larry Kramer

Take a Chance on Me” may be one of its most celebrated songs, but little risk is actually involved in “Mamma Mia!,” a predictably glossy screen adaptation of the Abba-scored musical. The pic uses virtually the same creative team behind the stage original — topped by helmer Phyllida Lloyd, making her film bow — but subs in bigscreen names like Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan for the leads and adds lush Greek exteriors. But the island-set tale of a young bride-to-be looking for dad offers little else that differs from the stage version and, since its grosses have exceeded $2 billion, why should it? To borrow another song title, Universal should reap reasonable “Money, Money, Money” in all territories.

The tuner shares a basic plot with the lesser-known 1968 Gina Lollobrigida starrer “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” so offers a variation of the recent screen-to-stage-to-screen-again works as “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” One difference is the highly lucrative addition of a soundtrack featuring several No. 1 hits by one of the most profitable music acts in history. With each song inserted to capture a certain moment or emotion in the script, and with the script itself stretched to encompass enough songs to fit the perfect best-of compilation, the storyline plays out more like an oversized Abba promotional vehicle than a fully dramatic piece.

The opening scenes offer a preview of the over-polished, glitzy texture used throughout, as a series of moonlit postcard images introduce us to the Greek island where Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is set to marry heartthrob Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Having never known the identity of her father, Sophie decides to invite three suspects –suave architect divorcee Sam (Pierce Brosnan), lonely but loaded investment banker Harry (Colin Firth), and roughshod world traveler Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). But Sophie doesn’t give warning to her ex-swinger mother Donna (Meryl Streep), who now runs a bed and breakfast atop the island.

Quid pro quo plays on for much of the pic’s first half, as the slightly bitter Donna — accompanied by zany friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) — attends to wedding preparations while reminiscing about the good old days when her trio, Donna and the Dynamos, rocked the scene. Meanwhile, Sophie plays an unending game of “My Three Dads” as she hops from one protective fatherly embrace to the other, unable to determine who’s the real one, and unwilling to confess her hidden agenda to Mom.

A prolonged, dance-heavy centerpiece features simultaneous bachelor and bachelorette parties where the entire cast, and all the subplots (including Donna’s re-emerging interest in Sam), converge in the type of chorus-line bonanza usually timed to wrap the first act with a bang. Yet on film, the scenes play more like “MTV Grind” than Busby Berkeley, with a roving camera breaking up the action into fast-cut singles.

The final reels are devoted to the wedding, set atop a dreamy seaside cliff (covered in one too many helicopter shots). After the truth is revealed, in what amounts to the film’s lengthiest dialogue sequence, the music kicks in for an extended showstopping finale that runs tirelessly through the stretched-out closing credits.

The singing-and-dancing work for the basic excitement and energy of a live performance, butan additional boost of cinematic prowess is needed to sustain a similar rhythm on film. Scribe-creator Catherine Johnson (also in her first screen outing) and theater-opera vet Lloyd can’t seem to find the right tone or style for their globally celebrated material.

Most of the chorus dance numbers — especially “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “Voulez-vous” — feel over-shot and over-cut, never allowing for the pleasure of a sustained, well-choreographed performance. Other, more intimate songs — including the beach-set “Lay All Your Love On Me” and the cliff-set “The Winner Takes It All” — feature a twirling Steadicam that does a better job of depicting the gorgeous coastline than the lip-synching cast.

Thesping is all-around pro, although some stars, especially the bouncy and rejuvenated Streep, seem better suited for musical comedy than others, including Brosnan and Skarsgard.

Despite the obvious time and energy devoted to smooth transitioning between studio and location scenes (both are shot realistically yet theatrically by d.p. Haris Zambarloukos), tech work often feels more rushed than mastered. Poor dubbing in some of the outdoor sequences tends to take away from the filmmakers’ insistence that we’re actually there.

Mamma Mia!

  • Production: A Universal (in U.S.)/United Intl. Pictures (in U.K.) release of a Universal Studios, Littlestar, Playtone production. Produced by Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman. Executive producers, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, Mark Huffam. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Screenplay, Catherine Johnson, based the original musical book by Johnson, originally conceived by Judy Craymer, based on the songs of Abba.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Haris Zambarloukos; editor, Lesley Walker; music and lyrics, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, with songs by Stig Anderson; musical director, Martin Lowe; music supervisor, Becky Bentham; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; supervising art director, Nick Palmer; art directors, Dean Clegg, Rebecca Holmes; set decorator, Barbara Herman-Skelding; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Simon Hayes; supervising sound editor, Nick Adams; re-recording mixers, Michael Barry, Michael Minkler, Dominick Tavella; choreographer, Anthony Van Laast; visual effects supervisor, Mark Nelmes ; visual effects, Framestore; assistant director, Chris Newman; casting, Priscilla John, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Odeon Leicester Square, London, July 4, 2008. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 108 MIN.
  • With: Donna - Meryl Streep Sam - Pierce Brosnan Harry - Colin Firth Bill - Stellan Skarsgard Rosie - Julie Walters Sky - Dominic Cooper Sophie - Amanda Seyfried Tanya - Christine Baranski