Here we go again, indeed. Except, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really isn’t anything like 2008’s Mamma Mia!, which was based on the musical of the same name. Yeah, pretty much everyone involved in the cast couldn’t resist getting another paid vacation, this time to Croatia – doubling for Greece – where all they’re really required to do is smile and sing bad karaoke. Such is what most remember about the first film, that it was a silly if not incredibly stupid musical melodrama set to the songs of that 1970s Swedish pop band ABBA that are the go-to, universally singable set of albums for any road trip playlist. Even those who loved to film admitted it was fairly fluffy, but because my mom and everyone else’s went to go see it, it lit the box office on fire that summer like no musical movie has really done since, not even The Greatest Showman, excuse me while I vomit. So, yeah, it’s been a decade now and pumping out a cash-grab sequel-prequel isn’t a bad idea, as releasing it almost to the day will be sure enough to induce at least a little bit of nostalgia in those same moms. Still, it’s partly commendable that writer-director Ol Parker wanted to do something slightly different with his narrative freedom by juxtaposing the past narrative – that the audience is already aware of – with the present storylines hoping they’ll intersect thematically and create almost a kind of pop-inspired tableau. Sounds almost doable in theory, but unfortunately the reality is they’re both so isolated from one another that neither story feels fully cohesive. The 1979 narrative has the greatest potential to make for an entire film, but it’s truncated by the present-day plotlines that really don’t go anywhere and feel more like an actual ten-year reunion á la Fuller House, something I couldn’t watch for longer than three minutes before wanting to bash my head on the coffee table. That’s admittedly a harsh comparison, and while Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a different film, it really isn’t much better than its predecessor.
Five years later, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has been renovating the villa alone without the help of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep), who passed away a year before the start of the film. While her marriage to Sky (Dominic Cooper) remains in question due to his extended business trips, Sophie realizes she is pregnant, and worries about her future. With the villa’s grand reopening looming, Sophie is joined by Donna’s old friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who recount their young lives with Donna and her subsequent adventures on and around the island when she realized she was also pregnant. We flash back to 1979, when a young Donna (Lily James) spends her post-grad exploring Europe with her friends. After splitting up with them, she meets the three men – Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan) and Sam (Jeremy Irvine) – she would spend her young romantic life with in a very short window, one of whom being the eventual father of Sophie. Going from fling to heartbreak, we see how Donna became the loving mother we remember her as, and how Sophie was truly the one to change her life forever.
Yeah, you read that right. They killed off Meryl Streep’s character off-screen, the point being made a mere five minutes into the film. I normally wouldn’t include a spoiler of that magnitude in a non-spoiler review, but it comes so early on and is of such importance that it would be shortsighted to write a recommendation or non-recommendation review without addressing it. Needless to say, it took me off my feet a bit when that bit of expository dialogue was uttered by Andy Garcia’s character. Not to mention the audible gasps that emanated from some of the women in the audience. Yes, Streep is technically in the movie – though briefly and not for a long while – so the marketing isn’t so much a lie as incredibly misleading. An actor of her caliber possesses some incredible screen presence, surely, but here it’s proven that her absence is even stronger. Now, I don’t have anything against the cast of the film, but the likes of Amanda Seyfried and Pierce Brosnan aren’t really enough to give the present day story much emotional bearing. I don’t know if scheduling conflicts kept Streep from being on set for more than two days, or if her being killed off was a conscious creative decision, but either way it doesn’t bode well for the film. When she finally does appear, it’s clear her singing chops have only improved since 2008, as evidenced by her Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Woods. Still, it’s merely a bittersweet reminder that the final product is largely missing one of its core components.
As for the rest of the actors, the returning older cast are given diminishing spotlight in favor of the celebrity newcomers. One gripe that was nearly universal in regard to the first film were the singing abilities – or lack thereof – of the likes of Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan, the latter especially. Well, apparently the producers remembered, and opted to only give them the mic when it was being shared by a few dozen more. The closest Brosnan ever gets to breaking out is when he mumbling the “SOS” duet he had with Streep in the first film under his breath. Conversely, whole musical numbers are lended to the incoming Cher and Garcia. Of course, you don’t hire Cher unless you want her to sing, but her inclusion in the film as Streep’s character’s mother – in reality only three years Streep’s senior – only really serves to boost its profile. And for those of you wondering if Garcia had the pipes to sing with the best of them, the jury’s still out on that one, as Cher virtually drowns out his voice in their number together. However with this and this spring’s Book Club, Garcia is quickly emerging as 2018’s signature male cougar.
As for the flashback sequences, the storyline involving the younger Donna is really the only saving grace for the film. And much of that can be attributed to James’s ability to embody the energy of Streep’s original persona but not feel beholden to emulating it entirely. Plus, her musical sensibilities make one wish the movies had that in mind in terms of casting more so than the recognizability of the faces. Fortunately, however, this was the case when the time came for filling the shoes of the younger cast. Yes, they do resemble their counterparts facially, but that’s where the similarities end. Even though it’s James who steals every number, they do more than hold their own, perhaps the most memorable being Skinner’s duet with James doing “Waterloo,” the only ABBA song I could see myself listening to ad nauseam. It also helps that he does a pretty good Colin Firth. Regardless, one can’t overlook how perfunctory these sequences are, the film merely checking off boxes as Donna bounces from love interest to love interest. And it doesn’t exactly help that the narrative arc is left primarily unfulfilled, left to fester until the events of the original film. Now, if they had devoted Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to being a full-on prequel, it might have worked, but as it stands it only gets more and more jarring every time it cuts between past and present.
Songwise, all of the classic hits like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” make another appearance, but a lot of the proceedings are devoted to ABBA’s back catalogue that didn’t make the cut the first time around. That’s not to say that the musical numbers are necessarily bad, but they do keep it from being as accessible for viewers, which is kind of the point. Like Rock of Ages, much of the appeal is that audiences are widely familiar with the lyrics and able to anticipate their integration into the story. So while ABBA remains the real star of the film, don’t expect the soundtrack to measure up to the first film’s.
Chances are, if Mamma Mia! was your new favorite movie musical when it came out, you’re going to like this one too. It’s thoroughly undemanding and affable, so it might make the perfect follow-up to a Sunday brunch for many. However, it’s far from being cohesive or even memorable, and unless you’re also a fan of these movies’ brand of absurdist comedy, there’s a slew of better musical films that have been released this decade for you to revisit.
Final Score: 4/10