‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ Review: Pretty Dumb, Not as Fun, But How Can You Resist It?
The pleasure of the first Mamma Mia! comes from watching a cast of likable actors who can’t sing or dance star in a totally bananas musical. It’s like celebrities doing bad, drunken ABBA karaoke in front of green screens. The new sequel/prequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – which has perhaps the best sequel subtitle of all time – is only half as fun as the first movie, replacing familiar faces with lesser known ones in a story we already know. But thanks to the returning cast and a showstopping Cher performance, there’s enough zany delights to forgive the snoozier bits.
Anyone who’s seen the 2008 movie knows logic and reason have no place in the wacky musical world of Mamma Mia! Both movies are as silly and tacky as can be, functioning as feature-length excuses for ABBA musical numbers. The first movie ended with Meryl Streep‘s Donna spontaneously marrying a guy she slept with and hadn’t seen in two decades, because why not? With that in mind, it’s tough to complain about the sequel’s retconning and ridiculous narrative leaps. For one, it’s never explained how the 72-year-old Cher plays the mother of the 69-year-old Streep. And speaking of Streep – and spoiler alert, though it’s blatantly teased in the trailers – while she makes a cameo in the sequel, her character’s dead. Why? No clue! How? They never say!
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which comes from writer-director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), picks up five years after the events of the first movie. After a character briefly mentions Donna died a year ago and others melancholically stare at framed portraits of her hanging around the Greek villa, the film moves on. We jump between the present day, where Amanda Seyfried‘s Sophie plans a grand re-opening party for the renovated hotel, and the past when the young Donna (Lily James) first arrives on the island of Kalokairi fresh out of college.
The first hour wastes time on the most uninteresting storylines and least appealing characters: recounting Donna’s trio of summer flings with the younger Harry, Bill and Sam, and the relationship woes between Sophie and Dominic Cooper’s Sky, who once again is just there as eye candy. The young Donna and the Dynamos perform, with Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies doing uninspired imitations of Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, respectively. Then Donna has a one-night-stand with Harry (Hugh Skinner, the best of the new guys, as the younger Colin Firth), flirts with Swedish playboy Bill (Josh Dylan as a youthful Stellan Skarsgard), and falls in love with the engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine as a young Pierce Brosnan, who can actually carry a tune).
The thing is, we already know this backstory from first movie, and Parker’s sequel brings no new revelations and sets up zero stakes. It simply retraces the same plot with a bunch of unknown pretty faces and a new, less catchy track list. It’s all a massive bore that left me anxious to get back to the present day and reunite with the first film’s liveliest characters and better-known ABBA songs.
As much as James carries her scenes with charm and ease, the more this sequel goes on, the clearer it becomes that Mamma Mia! without Meryl Streep just isn’t very fun. The biggest mistake Parker’s movie makes is killing off Donna. Streep was largely what made the first film work with her all-in, energized performance. But James playing the young Donna is like watching the B-side of the first movie.
When Baranski’s horny Tanya and Walter’s exuberant Rosie arrive, the sequel finally starts to resemble the cheery romp of the first. They drop a handful of crude one liners and ogle at Andy Garcia’s dashing hotel manager (after Book Club, is Garcia officially 2018’s movie zaddy?). Baranski and Walters share a duet during “Angel Eyes,” and even though it takes 11 songs to get there, I was relieved to finally find myself myself smiling along to the whole goofy affair. This is the movie I came to see, where two middle-aged women prance around a Greek villa flapping their arms and sipping wine.
Soon after, the entire island and a parade of boats erupt into an appropriately bonkers “Dancing Queen” sequence, where Firth and Skarsgard show off some terrifically bad dad dance moves. The two, along with Brosnan, don’t get much to do this time around – and while there’s a couple brief allusions to Harry’s sexuality, they’re all wedged into winking jokes. It’s disappointing that in 2018, a movie as gay as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again can’t even directly acknowledge its one gay character’s gayness outside of a punchline.
Here We Go Again is missing the magic of the first, but it has one secret ingredient that the original movie lacked: Cher, who waltzes onto the island to steal the whole damn show. Playing up her Las Vegas diva persona as Sophie’s grandmother Ruby – who I swear Donna implied was dead in the first film, but whatever! – she breaks into an extravagant cover of “Fernando” that caused my theater to erupt into applause. The end of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is pretty much a Cher concert of ABBA covers. And honestly, as Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson once wrote, how can you resist that?