In honor of Mother’s Day and all moms out there, I’ve decided to tackle a film that is not only a favorite of many of mothers, but is also a film that celebrates (or at least tries to) the relationship of a daughter, her mother, and the her three possible fathers.
Mamma Mia! (2008) is jukebox musical that’s based on a play of the same name written by British playwright Catherine Johnson. It’s directed by Phyllida Lloyd and stars Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada, Sophie’s Choice) and Amanda Seyfried (Letters to Juliet, Dear John) as mother and daughter, respectively. They’re accompanied by Christine Baranski (The Big Bang Theory), Julie Walters (Harry Potter series), Pierce Brosnan (fifth James Bond actor), Colin Firth (Kingsmen: The Secret Service), and Stellan Skarsgård (Thor).
On a small island in Greece, a bride-to-be goes behind her mother’s back and invites three of her mother’s old flames in hopes of discovering who among them is her real father. Things get out of hand, however, when Sophie, the daughter, finds out that it’s not going be as easy as she first thought it would be, especially since even her mother doesn’t know who the father is.
Mamma Mia! revolves around the question of “Who is Sophie’s father?” And while it’s a curious query that I continued to ponder on for the first third of the film, I quickly lost interest in the identity of a elusive patriarch. The film suffers from something that many musicals do, I’m afraid. It simply lacks substance outside of the glorious musical numbers that, in the case of Mamma Mia!, are a dime a dozen.
Now before you starting clicking away, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this film very much. I have not laughed this much at a comedy in a while and the songs are truly entertaining. But if one were to remove the music from this musical, I honestly think that it wouldn’t have much else to offer.
The choreography and musical set pieces in this film were absolutely diverting in so many weird ways. They weren’t the most spectacular or awe-inspiring, for sure, but most of them were undeniably enjoyable to a fault. The musical numbers often times came out of nowhere, made absolutely zero sense, and were ridiculously wacky, but they still made me laugh and I enjoyed almost every single one.
The “Dancing Queen” scene was definitely one of my favorites. Seeing Streep, Baranski, and Walters just go crazy in that scene, letting it all out, was something that was literally impossible not to be entertained by. It was a gleefully animated set piece and you would be lying if you said you didn’t jive to it just a little.
Speaking of Streep (Donna Sheridan), her experience in theater clearly shows in her performance in Mamma Mia! – from her acting to her singing, she shines in every scene she’s in. An effortlessly stunning performance that’s simply infectious. Her rendition of “The Winner Takes All” is arguably her best moment in the entire film. And that’s saying something, given that this is Meryl Streep we’re talking about. It was a performance that perfectly displayed Streep’s capacity as an artist, and I rewatched that scene multiple times after the movie ended because I loved it so much.
Seyfried plays a comfortable role in Mamma Mia! as a wide-eyed, excitable young girl who’s madly in love yet unsure of anything. It’s a role she continues to do well as in films such as Letters to Juliet (2010) and Les Misérables (2012). Her singing definitely deserves praise as well, being second only to Meryl Streep in the film.
Baranski and Walters’ characters (Tanya and Rosie) were my favorite parts of this movie. The chemistry between them was undeniable, and just about everything they said or did was unapologetically hilarious. Every time I saw either Aunt Tanya and Aunt Rosie on screen I thought to myself “The hell are they up to now?” with nothing but excitement.
Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgård sadly did not give the best performances of their respective careers in this one. They weren’t in any way bad in terms of their acting, but they would’ve honestly had slightly forgettable characters if not for the fact that they were part of the main cast. Also, it was palpably clear that none of them are singers. Every now and then, I would unconsciously squint in disapproval when one of them had to sing, especially Brosnan, who had a solo of all things.
The movie ends with Seyfried’s character, Sophie, asking her mother, Donna, to give her away during her wedding, something she had planned to have one of her fathers do in the beginning. This turn-of-events, I assume, was supposed to be the emotional linchpin of the story – a decision that showed that, after all this, Sophie chooses the love of her mother, woman who raised and took care of her alone all these years, over the satisfaction of knowing who her father is.
While the sentiment of the scene can easily be understood thanks to Meryl Streep singing “Slipping Through My Fingers” just before it happens, the drama of this and many other scenes didn’t permeate me as much as the more lighthearted scenes did. Honestly, it felt like that Sophie’s choice came out of nowhere and banked on the emotional impact of the ABBA song, which only felt wanting.
Mamma Mia! is a feel-good romantic comedy that celebrates love in all forms. It tries with so much enthusiasm to tell a sincere tale of the love shared between a mother and her daughter. It’s without a doubt hilarious and stylish, but it also lacks coherence and substance. But even then, the energetic performances of varying qualities from the cast and the undeniably catchy soundtrack will not fail to entertain you if you’re just looking to have a little bit of fun. It’s equal parts campy and cringe-y, but it’s the kind of film that cult classics are born out of. My advice: Just sit back, sing along, and try not to fuss too much about the many faults this movie has.