By Rory L. Aronsky | January 6, 2009

Weeks before the theatrical release of “Mamma Mia!”, I’d see the posters for it at various malls and not think anything of it. It was the same way while in Las Vegas the year before, seeing rooftop ads for the stage show on taxis. Just another night on the Strip. People will go see that like they do Barry Manilow.

My sister was the one responsible for getting the family to see this movie, her curiosity in turn becoming our curiosity. I was interested in seeing only “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” during the summer, hoping that after a six-year absence, the film would deliver what had been missed for so long. It didn’t, and on that day, where my parents and sister had planned to see “Mamma Mia!” and also had a ticket for me, I left the theater showing “The X-Files,” and headed into the theater showing “Mamma Mia!” as trailers were playing.

I never imagined I would find a musical that’s more entertaining than the problems facing down Mulder and Scully, but there it is. When my mom said outside the theater afterward that she wanted to get back in line and see it again, I offered to buy the tickets. We all settled for buying the soundtrack later in the day, and went back to the movie theater the next day to see it again.

“Mamma Mia!” just has that kind of effect. It’s fun, bright, completely aware of what it is, and ok with that. Though one would think a paternity search to be more nerve-wracking than enjoyable, here’s one that is, with the soon-to-be married Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, whom I first admired in “Nine Lives,” and hope that her career shoots to the stratosphere after this) mailing invitations to three men who might be her father: The adventurous Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgard, his character bearing a last name that sounds like it’s a tribute to Benny Andersson, one of the members of ABBA), the well-off architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan, enjoying the freedom from the rigors of being James Bond, even though it’s been six years since), and the reserved bachelor Harry Bright (Colin Firth), who used to be a punk rocker as we find out in a photo during the ‘Our Last Summer’ number on Bill’s boat, but has considerably changed, which one either accepts easily or is suddenly surprised by at the end of the film. The first time I saw “Mamma Mia!”, I didn’t catch on to the meaning of the scene on Bill’s boat, between him and Harry, and was surprised, though pleased by that ending for Harry.

Sophie’s source of this knowledge is the diary belonging to her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep, who looks like she fearlessly goes without makeup in one scene, still a valuable actress because of that kind of continual surprise), a diary she kept the year she was pregnant with Sophie. But now, with these men on the way, and with Sophie’s wedding the next day, good friends arrive, with the rich Tanya (Christine Baranski), and “lone wolf” Rosie (Julie Walters, quickly stealing all her scenes) for Donna; and Lisa (Rachel McDowell) and Ali (Ashley Lilley) for Sophie. With that sizable mix in place, the drama begins, as the men arrive and as the ABBA songs keep on coming. Who is Sophie’s father? What will Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) think of Sophie’s efforts, despite him trying to deflect her from the thought many times? Substantial fluff, all of it, made even more wonderful by Universal Studios’ top-notch decision to retain for the film those who created the stage hit: the producer and creator Judy Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson, and director Phyllida Lloyd, who, unlike Susan Stroman of “The Producers,” understands not to have her actors perform as if they’re trying to get the attention of audience members in the back row. Better than that, some of “Mamma Mia!” was filmed on location in Greece and that’s also what contributes to the sunshine that radiates in every moment.

All the actors sing, quite well, and though Pierce Brosnan has been ribbed for his efforts, I liked what he did. Can one honestly say that he’s any worse than those who have auditioned for “American Idol,” and even some who have made it onto that show? During one of the final songs of the film, “When All is Said and Done,” he sounds, to me, like Gordon Lightfoot, a knowing voice to embody.

And now we have the two-disc DVD set, which is a standard, pleasant collection of behind-the-scenes footage, with the requisite concern about whether the actors could successfully sing these ABBA songs, and then praise for them, for the joy they brought to the production, and Benny Andersson believing that these versions of the songs are the best that they will be. Considering Amanda Seyfried’s impressive voice (and buoyant presence, especially in a featurette where the camera follows her in a day’s work, as well as a music video for “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”), and how game the rest of the cast is in this, that’s probably true. It also helps that Andersson worked on the film in the music department to make sure that all was kept intact.

The great surprise of this set is Phyllida Lloyd’s audio commentary, which doesn’t take the Susan Stroman tack of simply reciting what’s happening on screen, not really letting on about her own possible fears of directing a movie rather than a stage production. Lloyd directed the first “Mamma Mia!” production in London’s West End, then Broadway, and all around the world, including Las Vegas. But to direct a film, to bring this on the screen, to find out what she wanted during all this can make nervousness a constant companion. In fact, Lloyd admits that the first time she was able to relax during filming was the “Voulez-Vous” number, where the cast and extras are dancing around and around, or standing on the periphery of the party. Referring to the days before filming “Voulez-Vous” as “pure terror,” Lloyd says that she was sitting on a roof on the set, watching the proceedings and thought to herself, “This is fun.”

Lloyd is most impressive in her grasp of film terms, which one wouldn’t expect from her background. During the scene where Sophie is introduced to Bill, Sam and Harry, Lloyd refers to the camera movement as a “whip pan,” and points out to viewers that for every actor onscreen, there are 40 people behind the scenes. It’s a fair reminder about the hard work it takes to make fantasy a vacation worth reveling in for close to two hours. But it definitely is easy to digest. More fluff like “Mamma Mia!” than “Made of Honor” would make mid-year moviegoing a happier experience. It accomplishes that further on DVD.

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