Mamma Mia! is the sort of movie fans watch endlessly, or so I’ve been told. The ABBA-infused musical was endearingly corny, without a care in the world. Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried and Colin Firth were able to belt out the classic rock band’s most famous hits (“Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “Lay All Your Love On Me,” etc., etc.) over the course of a lighthearted story celebrating all sorts of relatable emotional moments in the lead-up to a wedding. Flighty, fun middle-aged fantasy.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again opens with everything you loved in the first movie breaking down: Donna Sheridan (Streep) is dead and her daughter, Sophie (Seyfried), is desperate to reopen the Greek hotel that was her late mother’s dream. Sky (Dominic Cooper), her husband of 10 years, cannot make it to the opening and may accept a job in New York City. The specter of separation looms. Her three fathers — Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), Harry (Colin Firth) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan) — are in her life, but the first two are unable to make it to the event that means so much to her. Everything is falling apart.
Interwoven with Sophie’s journey to honor her mother is a prolonged flashback story exploring how young Donna (Lily James) came to the island, met her three suitors and eventually decided to raise Sophie as a single mother on a Greek island paradise. It’s a little like The Godfather Part II, with more ABBA. The two stories feel needlessly long but sort-of come together to underscore sweet themes of women persevering, honoring and loving one another.
As with the first movie, most of the story is told through selections from Abba’s deep library, but a foreseeable problem is that the first movie went all-out using most of their most recognizable tracks. HWGA reprises a few, including the titular “Mamma Mia,” but tries to use them in a different context. The soundtrack is a mixture of big hits they missed in the first film — “Waterloo,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Fernando” — and less bombastic selections like “Andante, Andante” and “Angel Eyes.” Slower songs, especially “My Love, My Life,” are used to great effect.
Good songs, more songs, maybe too many songs. The more somber and emotionally complex set of track selections informs a story that shoots for more difficult subject matter (grief, legacy, motherhood), which makes most of the movie less incessantly joyful than the first to mixed results — nobody comes to see Mamma Mia! to feel sad — and ultimately the ending does bring the two storylines together with a satisfying emotional sweep involving Cher (a newcomer to the franchise), Streep, “Fernando” and “My Love, My Life.” But the preceding two hours of endless dancing and music kind of takes a toll. You’ll still get goosebumps when the bigger numbers play and the budget is on full display. Peaks and valleys. Whether or not the movie “earns” its final moments feels irrelevant. There’s no denying the story is slowly paced, poorly edited and dragging where it should sprint. It manages to land the tearjerking conclusion anyway. All credit to the performers, old and new.
Speaking of: Cher. She’s heavy in the advertising but largely an absent presence up until her grand entrance at the end of the movie, where her actual singing talent is like an atom bomb on the rest of the movie. No disrespect to Seyfried or James; they carry the movie and it largely belongs to them, and any musical numbers involving them are great. But when Cher shows up and the plot contrivances finally arrive (after being spotted a mile away) to bring her into a performance of “Fernando” with Andy Garcia, this year’s most lovable silver fox, any qualms reaching this point kind of melt away. She can sing.
I have no feelings one way or the other about the original film but had the pleasure of seeing it with my aunt, who is a big fan. She was pleased by HWGA’s fidelity to Donna’s backstory as described in the first movie. There is no big twist here: It’s a straightforward recollection of how Donna met the men who would become her daughter’s fathers. Each of the young actors are relatively interchangeable, pretty and bland, but maybe that’s because James really is such a delightful presence. It’s not every actress who is tasked with portraying a young version of Meryl Streep. I think she surpasses the challenge.
My aunt was also pleased with the movie as a whole, the final cathartic moments and the subsequent full-cast final performance of “Super Trouper.” I left the theater pretty happy, too. It’s a well-balanced ending and a fun movie, a sequel that builds and expands on the original without quite matching the sense of fun and energy. It’s for the better. You can’t recreate something like Mamma Mia! for those who cherish it, but Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a sequel that really tries to tackle the next stage of its characters’ lives, without cannibalizing the original.