Mamma Mia!, PG<br />Journey to the Center of the Earth, PG<br />Forbidden Kingdom, 12A

Here we go again ... someone's been at the ouzo bottle and forgotten the plot

Nicholas Barber
Sunday 13 July 2008 00:00

In the decade since Mamma Mia! first opened in London, the Abba musical has been seen by "30 million people in 170 cities", according to the press notes, although I doubt anyone knows whether that's 30 million different people, or whether a million people have seen it 30 times. Either way, you'd have to assume that the musical has its share of fans, and I don't see why they shouldn't all be fans of the film version, too.

Peppily directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also originated the stage production, the film takes the action out of the theatre and on to an idyllic Greek island, where a star-studded cast almost makes up in gusto for what it lacks in singing and dancing ability.

For anyone who isn't a fan of the musical already, Mamma Mia! is a bit more problematic. The film stars Meryl Streep as the overworked owner of a struggling Greek hotel. Her daughter, Amanda Seyfried, is about to marry the frequently shirtless Dominic Cooper, but Seyfried wants to be given away by the father she's never met, so she secretly sends wedding invitations to the three men Streep slept with in the summer before she had her daughter: smoothie architect Pierce Brosnan, stuffy businessman Colin Firth, and a token Swede, Stellan Skarsgard. All three men are obliging enough to turn up the day before the wedding, and they're all obliging enough to be single, but which of them is the father of the bride, and which of them is still in love with her mother?

It's a reasonable premise for a sun-soaked, vaguely Shakespearean comedy, but it's almost perverse how little it has to do with the songs of Abba. After a buoyant opening, in which Seyfried trills "Honey Honey" while reading out her mum's old diary, the screenwriter cheats by mentioning that Streep and her pals, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, used to be in a girl group together. From then on, anyone who's male or under 50 gets sidelined, as Streep and Co belt out one karaoke staple after another, whether it fits the story of not.

Let's be honest, if they're going to use "Chiquitita", shouldn't there be someone Spanish in the room? And considering that "Super Trouper" includes the phrase, "I called you last night from Glasgow", shouldn't it be sung by someone who, let's say, telephoned their partner from a city in Scotland the previous evening? And however many times I've heard that line about the "Dancing Queen" being "young and sweet, only 17", I've never imagined it referring to three women in their very late 50s jumping up and down on a bed and playing air guitar.

Mamma Mia! is neither as witty nor as romantic as Muriel's Wedding, which will always be the real Abba film musical for me. But the songs are all so well loved that it should do business as a singalong pantomime. No one in the cinema need worry about how over the top or out of tune they're being, because most of the people on screen perform as if they're not actually in the film, but joining in with the DVD at home after an evening on the ouzo. They're certainly troupers, if not necessarily super.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is the first ever live-action feature film to be shot in digital 3D, which means that's it all about those 3D effects: if your local cinema is showing it in 2D, try somewhere else. Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, it stars Brendan Fraser and Josh Hutcherson as a scientist and his nephew, who travel to Iceland and discover that Verne was writing science fact, not fiction. It's a traditional Disney-style adventure which should satisfy young children, but it could be too tame for their big brothers and sisters. After the opening credits, there's an hour's wait for any more dinosaurs, and in the meantime, the film, much like the Earth, has a hollow centre.

In Forbidden Kingdom, a Bostonian teenager is whisked off to a mystical Chinese land where he's trained by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It's the first time these two martial arts legends have been in a film together, and although it's not the classic it should be, it's an imaginative, action-packed family romp which pays affectionate homage to Shaw Brothers movies and the Monkey television series. In short: Jackie Chan meets Jet Li in a film that's Kung Fu Panda meets Prince Caspian.

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