Review: For Summer Fun at the Movies, Mamma Mia! Sequel is a Sure Thing

Let's get this out of the way up front: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, like its predecessor (and smash hit, currently sitting at $144M worldwide gross), is silly from start to finish. It is goofy and predictable and kitschy and absurd. It is also wonderful. Mamma Mia 2 Image courtesy of Universal Pictures If you can manage to carry those two seemingly conflicting truths with you for the 114-minute runtime, you will be rewarded with a summer cinematic treat that may be as fleeting as a double scoop waffle cone melting faster than you can eat it—but every bit as enjoyable. Long rumored to be in the works after 2008's Mamma Mia!, itself an adaptation of a stage musical that it a hit in its own right, became a surprise success, Here We Go Again picks up some time after we left Donna (Meryl Streep), Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and the gang on a Greek island belting out ABBA tunes and carrying on as though it's perfectly normal for a middle-aged woman to have no idea who fathered her grown daughter. Like I said, absurd. But stick with me here. It's not a spoiler to share that we join Sophie on the island after Donna has passed away (we're never privy to the circumstances); she's renovated the farmhouse into Hotel Bella Donna and the grand re-opening is just a day away. Reminiscing about her mom, we're cross-cut back to 1979 and Lilly James as a young Donna (with friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies)) at her college graduation. After breaking out into song (the quite apropos "When I Kissed the Teacher") for an energetic if obscure opening number, Donna is off to discover the world and her destiny. Here's where you should know that the story crafted for Here We Go Again had a few things working against it from the get-go. For one, Mamma Mia! used all the good ABBA songs! The team behind the sequel had to dig deep for enough tracks to fill in an entire second movie, and they just barely make it. For good measure, we revisit a few of the biggest hits (yes, there's "Dancing Queen" and "Mamma Mia" and "Waterloo" get the idea), and many of the film's interludes and background tracks are familiar ABBA melodies. The other warning sign is the number of writing credits on the thing; it never bodes well for a film when it takes a small village to piece the story together, and here, three different people are listed. Director Ol Parker takes top writing billing, and Catherine Johnson, who wrote the stage version and the first film, is also credited. Interestingly enough, Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, About Time) rounds out the trio, and it's very likely that most of the best moments in the movie are his. The plot is such that on the one hand, we join Sophie and the gang (including three dads Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth), plus the Dynamos Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters)) as they get back together to celebrate Donna and open the new hotel. On the other, we get to know a young Donna much better and finally see for ourselves just how it came to be that she's not quite sure who to call her baby daddy. We meet young Sam (Jeremy Irvine), young Bill (Josh Dylan) and young Harry (Hugh Skinner) just as she does as she makes her way from Paris to Greece; each of the young men is fabulously paired to their older versions, their performances so note perfect to their counterparts it's uncanny. There's also Dominic Cooper with a few scenes as Sophie's beau (and her baby daddy) Sky, plus the addition of Andy Garcia as Latin hotel manager Señor Cienfuegos (how he ended up in Greece, we'll never know...but do we care?). And of course, the film's kitsch pièce de résistance: Cher herself in full diva mode as Ruby, Donna's mom / Sophie's grandmother. It's a crowded cast list, to be sure, and even if it feels overstuffed, it's never burdensome; the returning cast pop back in like old friends, and the newcomers are so perfectly game to get in on the goofiness that they're immediately part of the party. And party they do. From dancing on yachts as they approach the island to a fully choreographed number in a French restaurant to the birth of Donna and the Dynamos at a hole-in-the-wall Greek cafe, the musical breaks come at you fast, in all their sequined, bell-bottomed glory. Through it all, there's a somberness to the proceedings as well, believe it or not. In Mamma Mia!, it was the mother/daughter relationship that gave the film its emotional weight (to this day, it's a staple for Mother's Day events at independent movie theaters everywhere). Here, Donna's untimely exit is the undercurrent of every interaction in the present day, and it's to Parker, Curtis and Johnson's credit that they give this merry band some space to grieve such a palpable absence. For every quippy one-liner aimed at a laugh, there's an equally brief but poignant acknowledgement of what's changed over time, a reflection on appreciating what really matters in life. (Of course, in Here We Go Again it's, for example, a goofy mini-scene where Harry, half asleep in a contract negotiation meeting in Tokyo, suddenly realized Sophie is the best thing in his life and he must go! Immediately! to the island to see her... Silly. Wonderful.) Still, it's this very complexity, however forced, that gives the sequel a pass in the end. Without it, the film slips irretrievably into campy, tone-deaf uselessness. Each new number becomes more and more absurd, borderline annoying. Instead, with clear care and attention to detail (there are some serious Easter egg nods to the first film for those looking for them), the creative team who decided the world needed another ABBA jukebox musical did good by us. They ensure, through simple yet meaningful moments (watch a particularly thoughtful one the first time Rosie and Bill see each other again), that each member of this massive ensemble is humanized to a degree we can all appreciate. It's likely that by the third act of this over-the-top ode to pop music, family and friendship that you'll have rolled your eyes once or twice at the dizzying foolishness of it all. But if, like me, you prefer your summer movie blockbusters to have a few more musical numbers than explosions, to be a bit more joyful than vengeful, and to make you laugh and tear-up in equal measure (sometimes in the same scene), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is exactly the vacation you deserve. Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, get access to exclusive content, and know how much we appreciate your support!
Picture of the author
Lisa Trifone