World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Mamma Mia!’

Travel Blog  •  Eva Holland, Eli Ellison  •  01.09.09 | 5:18 PM ET

Mamma Mia! poster

Here’s the set-up: Bride-to-be Sophie has three possible biological fathers, and all three have come from around the world—along with an international cast of oddball friends—to her destination wedding on a tiny Greek Island. The result? The year’s biggest travel-musical-comedy.

Since it sashayed onto the big screen this past summer, “Mamma Mia!”—the movie adaptation of the hit ABBA-themed musical—has smashed sales records and garnered some award nominations, too. World Hum Travel Movie Clubbers Eli Ellison and Eva Holland took the disc for a spin.

To: Eva
From: Eli
Subject: Not diggin’ the dancing queen

Let’s begin with a few questions I jotted down while my ears bled to the tune of ABBA’s “Chiquitita.” 

“Worse than the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s movie?” 

“Pierce Brosnan: blackmailed into doing this?” 

“Why is Eva torturing me?” 

Answers: 1) a toss up 2) without a doubt 3) I honestly don’t know, but whatever I’ve done, please forgive me. 

Well, it took me all of five minutes to understand this movie is not aimed at me. From hyper-teen squealing and giggling to middle-age girl power and the insufferable glitter pop of ABBA, oh Eva, it was all so frighteningly energetic. If I’d seen this in a movie theater, I’d have bolted for the lobby and ordered an extra large bucket of hot-buttered barbiturates

Look, I love a good musical and I don’t suffer from chick-flick-a-phobia. So unlike most men, I wasn’t dreading my DVD date with “Mamma.” I pressed “play” expecting a lightweight story with fun song-n-dance numbers. “Mamma Mia!” delivers on the cotton candy plot. The singing and dancing? Um, not so much. 

Meryl Streep (oh Meryl, why?!) has a decent set of pipes, as do Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski. Too bad they weren’t given better dialogue to speak between the 20-plus ABBA tunes. As for Pierce Brosnan’s now infamous warbling, it seems he’s exchanged his 007 license to kill for a license to kill music. 

The choreography, if you can call it that, draws much inspiration from early 80s MTV videos. That’s a bad thing. “Dancing Queen” is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video GONE WILD in Greece. Parts of “Money, Money, Money” play like a bizarre cross between Duran Duran’s “Rio” video and a menopausal homage to “Titanic.” And as for the chorus line of “mantastic” Greek hard bodies dancing on a pier in scuba fins, words fail me. 

I could go on with bad jokes, but we need to talk about “Mamma Mia!” as travel flick. So what about it? The movie was filmed on the Greek islands of Skopelos and Skiathos. Sadly, I’ve never visited Greece, so I looked forward to a bit of widescreen travel porn. The islands are certainly beautiful, but the awkward camera work, epileptic editing and weird lighting are so bad, it could’ve been shot on a soundstage against a green screen and I’d have been none the wiser. 

Sure, you’ve got the wonderful aerial shots of boats sailing across the golden-sun-dappled Aegean Sea. But they never gave me a real feel for the island. I never felt like I was there. No sense of place. What do you think? Am I being too hard on the director? Is my desire for realism misplaced? Am I missing the destination wedding fantasy gene? 

I know “Mamma Mia!” is camp, and the movie is obviously self-aware in that respect, but I just can’t get over the shoddy filmmaking on screen. Must I be an ABBA fan to see past it and surrender to the joys of “Super Trouper”?

To: Eli
From: Eva
Subject: Knowing me, knowing you

Well, Eli, I can’t say I’m surprised to hear that you weren’t diggin’ the dancing queen (or having the time of your life, for that matter), and I’m sure your socks won’t be knocked off, either, when I admit that I was happily tapping my toes and bobbing my head through most of the flick.

You’re right that this movie isn’t really aimed at you—though I don’t think one necessarily needs to be an ABBA devotee to enjoy it. But you’re also right that it’s a flawed example of its genre. My issue isn’t so much with the over-the-top musical numbers, which I thoroughly enjoyed (though your description of “Money, Money, Money” is bang on, now that I think about it) but with that puffball plot. 

Here’s my beef: “Mamma Mia!” spends an hour and a half building up tension in half-a-dozen subplots—there’s mother-daughter friction, bride-groom friction, and of course three different potential dads wreaking havoc among mothers, daughters, and token female friends alike—and then, in a few minutes of unlikely, awkwardly-scripted action, it all unravels, far too quickly and neatly for my liking. I never thought I’d say this about a movie that’s maybe as far from “subtle” as you can get, but I actually think they could have done with a little more ham-fisted foreshadowing. All the tying-up-of-loose-ends that went on felt impossibly contrived; if the script had dropped more hints along the way, it would have felt predictable, sure, but at least my suspension of disbelief wouldn’t have been disrupted. (Said suspension being crucial to the enjoyment of a movie like this, of course.)

Okay, so the ending let me down—but, as I said, I was blissed out through the first 90 minutes. What went right? 

First off, you can never go wrong with Meryl Streep. Could anyone else bring depth and warmth to a character this cartoonish, while repeatedly being forced to don bejewelled (well, besequined, at least) spandex onesies no less? Amanda Seyfried, as daughter Sophie, was another standout for me. I’ve seen Seyfried in action twice before (both times as a Buxom Blonde Space Cadet, in “Mean Girls” and “Alpha Dog”) and am glad she’s put her sidekick days behind her. Meanwhile, there’s Pierce Brosnan. Yeah, the dude really could wither flowers on the vine with his singing, but didn’t you want to give him props (even just a little?) for putting himself out there anyway?

As far as the travel porn factor goes with this one, I’m on the fence. You’re right that the islands didn’t seem quite as vivid and alive as I’d hoped; they came off better, I think, in (don’t laugh) “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” last summer’s other romantic-comedy-in-the-Greek-islands. But I think part of that was a result of the movie’s overall disconnection from reality: “Mamma” is pure fantasy, and maybe in a fantasy world, a tiny Greek island doesn’t need anything more than some heartbreakingly blue water, plenty of bright laundry hung out to dry, and frolicking dancers aplenty?

Of course, on my Greek fantasy island, there’d be a lot more of the scuba-finned bachelor-party-goers, and fewer father figures. But that’s another story.

To: Eva
From: Eli
Subject: S.O.S. 

Plot tension? We’re talking about an ABBA movie, not “The Godfather Part II.” But okay, I’ll play along. Yes, the end was ridiculous, but I thought you would’ve liked everything wrapped up in a contrived bow, with a bare-chested Sky (Dominic Cooper) slow-mo dancing in the Aphrodite fountain to boot. 

You wanted more foreshadowing? Eva, from the moment Pierce Brosnan stepped ashore, I knew his character’s fate. Though I must admit, I never saw Colin Firth’s character twist coming. Speaking of the three dads, I do give “Mamma Mia!” props for making one of them a travel writer. He spent, what, two days on the island? You know, in the eyes of some publishers, this makes him qualified to write a 300-page guidebook to the Greek isles. 

Don’t get me wrong on Pierce. His singing wouldn’t have advanced him past the first week of “American Idol.” But I actually enjoyed his numbers. They provided laughs in a script that offered few. Also, I agree Meryl is terrific. She’s arguably the best actress of the modern era and really can do anything. Why the French Lieutenant’s Woman chose to don a sequined jumpsuit and belt out “Waterloo,” I haven’t a clue. 

I really do feel this is a poor travel movie and I totally disagree with you that I need not be an ABBA junkie to enjoy it. I think if I owned “ABBA Gold” (which I’m sure you do), I too would’ve been tapping my toes and bobbing my head in blissed out denial of the disaster on screen. 

Gotta run. There’s an Elvis movie marathon on TV today. Boy, some of those Elvis flicks sure do stink. But last time I checked, he can actually sing and dance.

To: Eli
From: Eva
Subject: Thank you for the music

Geez, Eli, tell me what you really think!

I’ll admit, I’m not the least gullible tool in the shed, and my record on movie-ending-predictions is worse than Brosnan’s warbling, but I genuinely didn’t see most of the denouement coming. I was as puzzled as Sophie about who her real dad was, and just as clueless as any of the characters about what fate would bring them in the end. I did know one thing, though: that they’d end the whole spectacle with one more big song-and-dance number.

You ask what Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan are doing in a silly piece of fluff like “Mamma Mia!”—isn’t it possible that they signed on, not thanks to blackmail or a mild stroke, but for the absurd, over-the-top, sequined fun of it all? Sure, the dancing’s bad and the singing is (mostly) worse. But I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t the only one enjoying myself; that the middle-aged cast was also getting a kick out of it. If there’s a deeper meaning or message to “Mamma Mia!” (yes, I’m going there), isn’t it that we all need to let loose once in a while (or be more spontaneous, as Colin Firth’s character would put it), and have fun no matter how silly we look?

Look, “Mamma Mia!” is a bit like an all-inclusive resort vacation: a brief retreat into pure, happy hedonism. (Only instead of a week-long hangover afterwards, I’ll have the lyrics to “I Have a Dream” stuck in my head for days.) Now, that kind of vacation is some people’s idea of hell—but if you’re able to let go and enjoy it on its own terms, it can be a darn good time.

I know it’s flawed and foolish, but “Mamma Mia!” made me smile. And for that I say, thank you for the music, for giving it to me…

Eli Ellison is a writer based in Seal Beach, California. He secretly loves “Voulez-Vous.”

Eva Holland is based in Ottawa, Canada. She has fond memories of being 17, and a dancing queen.

11 Comments for World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Mamma Mia!’

Camels & Chocolate 01.09.09 | 6:48 PM ET

Eva, I agree with you: Sisterhood (both 1 and 2) both made me want to get thine booty to Greece ASAP; Mamma Mia, not so much. And the setting factor was about the only saving grace for me from that movie, and since it got a fail, I give the overall film two big thumbs down.

The ONLY good thing about this movie was Amanda Seyfried’s breakout performance on the big screen. How cute is she???

And the ironic part is that I’m all about some cheesy musicals and chick flicks. I AM Mamma Mia’s demographic! I tried really hard to like it, but Pierce Brosnan should just resume looking pretty and never again be given a microphone (for singing purposes; he can continue to act if he so wishes).

Still, I’m gonna have to go with Eli on this one!

Valerie Conners 01.09.09 | 7:05 PM ET

Eva - I’m not ashamed to admit it: I LOVED this movie! Maybe it was seeing it with a group of likeminded girlfriends, maybe it was my ages-old crush on Pierce Brosnan from his Remington Steele days, or perhaps it was those countless nights I sang “Fernando” at karaoke—in any case, this move struck a funny note with me and I giggled throughout the whole thing. I wasn’t concerned with the plot, or the editing, or Pierce’s god-awful singing; the movie was just a really good singalong, sequined kinda time. Now if only I could get my own Greek chorus to follow me around Philly ...

Alison Tait 01.09.09 | 8:06 PM ET


where do i begin, and should i start at the end? To be true to myself i must admit that i was not completely in love with this film, although i was bopping and singing through the whole thing (Peirce’s lack of singing ability was my favorite part, the man has balls.). But what i really wanted to mention that neither of you talked about how true they stayed to their theatre roots.

There is a very good reason you don’t see many grandiose island shots and the sets all feel a little contrived and crowed. How on else would you fit it onto a stage. Admitting that i haven’t seen the stage production, I think that all of this would become much more apparent when being performed live. And I think that the movie makers were trying to relay that live theatre feeling to the screen. And i think they did a pretty good job. Weather or not that’s a good idea is up in the air.

I’ve never been a true believer in bringing stage to screen, but if it is going to be done, i would prefer to see how much more fabulous it could be on screen then in theatre, if i want to see the limitations on theatre, i’ll go to the theatre. Which i do BTW.

Michael Yessis 01.10.09 | 10:42 AM ET

Another entertaining edition of the Movie Club. Thanks Eva and Eli.

I don’t think I’m going to see the movie anytime soon, though. I saw the Vegas production of the musical for a story. That was enough for me.

By the way, you mention some flower-withering Pierce Brosnan singing. Got a link so we can get the full Brosnan experience?

Eva Holland 01.10.09 | 1:07 PM ET

Ask and you shall receive, Mike:

Meryl and Pierce sing S.O.S. -

Eva Holland 01.10.09 | 1:14 PM ET

@Camels and Chocolate - Totally agreed re: Amanda Seyfried! I thought she was adorable in this one.

@Valerie - Pierce Brosnan can pretty much do no wrong in my book, either. Even with the brutal singing! I had a ton of fun watching this one, too.

@Alison (hi!!) You make a good point about the stage-to-screen element, I hadn’t thought of that.

Eli 01.10.09 | 3:06 PM ET

Valerie—fyi, the DVD has an on-screen lyrics feature so you can sing-a-long. Mike will want to check this out as well. I remember the story he and Mrs Yessis wrote about the stage production. In it, she writes:

“I’d swear I heard Mike singing along to a kinetic and, yes, very new version of “Dancing Queen,” a moment that might have made Sinatra cringe, but for me, was definitely worth the price of admission.”

Forget the Brosnan clip. We want to see this.

John M. Edwards 01.10.09 | 9:13 PM ET

Hi Eli and Eva:

You go, Girl, Guy! You two can really snipe.

I would kind of like to see “Mamma Mia”—the play on Broadway is just around the corner from me in New York, and almost every day I glance at the monolithic billboard of an ecstatic smiling brunette in wedding gear. But I think I’ll give the film a miss.

Still the idea of Pierce Brosnan not really being able to sing at all might lure me into the cineplexes. One of his previous films, “The Matador,” stands out for the fact that the directors intentionally got Pierce shirts a couple sizes too small so he would look more sinister as a “hitman.”

Yes, an ABBA-themed film might be just the vehicle to daydream about my own trips to the Greek Islands, which were filled, yes, with devastating Scandinavian girls burning their skin on the beaches in the day and drinking too much and leaving with the wrong guys at the discos at night.

John M. Edwards

Soultravelers3 01.11.09 | 8:30 AM ET

My daughter and I LOVED this movie, my husband could not even get though it. We have been all over the Greek Islands for months, so the travel part was a nice reminder for us ( as it was in Sisterhood movie). If one has been there, I think it is probably a different experience than watching a movie or even seeing photos of places that you have not been to yet.

But that was not the highlight for us. Nor was the music because neither my daughter or I are of an age where we have ever experienced ABBA music.

We had tried to see the musical in London this year and then in NYC, but it did not work out with our timing, so it was funny that we watched the movie on a trans Atlantic flight! I was surprised to see Meryl in this role and thought she was terribly miscast, but she did a great job considering that and as a former actress I can understand why she would want to do this.

What was also funny about seeing it for me, was I was about to see friends that I have not seen in decades and with whom I use to go to Studio 54 in it’s hey day. What fun memories it brought back of those fun days of youth and how life changes you.

Now as a mother with a child growing fast ( although only 8 at this moment) I also actually cried at the song about how fast a child grows. I know it will be a blink of an eye before my daughter will be off on her own adventures and getting married or having children of her own. 

How embarrassing to be trying to hide my tears in coach while watching fluff like Mama Mia! As a mother with older kids, Meryl knows what the words to that song mean & has the gift of sharing deeply, even in a light movie like this.

So true, it is not a great movie, but it is a wonderful girl flick and this mom and daughter want to buy it so we can watch it again and again. ( On our open ended world tour, we are quite particular about what dvd’s we choose to buy and carry with us because of size restrictions).

it reminds us about our travels and adventures together, the value of old friendships & family, about being unabashedly a free spirit at any age and celebrates life! Who can really argue against that? Don’t sweat the small stuff and enjoy the pure joy!

BeccaHare 01.11.09 | 10:09 AM ET


Michael Yessis 01.11.09 | 8:48 PM ET

Thanks for the Brosnan clip. Compared to me, Eli, he’s Sinatra.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.