19 Jul REVIEW – ‘Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again’
Most sequels exist purely on the basis of the first film making a truckload of money at the box office. You can’t blame studios for wanting to cash in. Existing for no other reason than its predecessor earning over $600 million worldwide in 2008, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is one of the most unnecessary films of the year. Nobody really needed to know the origins of Donna Sheridan and her young exploits which led to the failure of knowing the father of her daughter from three possible candidates. We can put the pieces together ourselves.
But $600 million is nothing to sneer at. And there are plenty more ABBA songs to bastardise for the sake of a movie musical. Thus, here we are with the sequel nobody really asked for. Serving up everything you loved and hated about the original, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again delivers a fluffy, giddy good time that’s as fatuous and illogical as movies get. Despite the nonsense of its premise and production, it’s ultimately blissful escapism and lord knows we all need some of that right now.
Taking place over two timelines, we begin in present day with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) working tirelessly at the Hotel Bella Donna, a renovation of the dilapidated hotel her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) raised her daughter in. Desperate to make her mother proud, Sophie has turned the rundown Greek island location into a swanky boutique getaway spot. With her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) away in New York on business and one of her “stepfathers” Sam (Pierce Brosnan) in a bit of a slump, it’s left to Sophie to plan the hotel’s dazzling relaunch party with the help of hotel manager Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia).
When Donna’s two best friends, Tanya (another scene-stealing turn from Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) arrive on the island to provide support for the upcoming soiree, Sophie begins to ponder the events which led to her mother arriving on the island. Sophie is especially keen to know how her wild child mother met each of Sophie’s potential fathers, Sam, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth). As the original film highlighted, Donna was notoriously private about her early days, and Sophie is still in the dark as to how her mother found herself in such a scandalous situation.
Flashing back 25 years, we meet the younger version of Donna (Lily James), a promising young graduate with a flair for theatrics. After Donna graduates from college in spectacular fashion, she leaves Tanya (a terrific Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) behind to set off to travel the world alone where the dashing and mysterious Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Swedish lothario Bill (Josh Dylan), and painfully awkward Harry (Hugh Skinner) await to spin Donna’s life upside down.
So let’s get right to the elephant in the room first. No, Meryl Streep is not really in this film. The marketing is lying to you. Streep’s presence invariably hangs heavily throughout the entire film. There are scatterings of framed photos of Donna doted throughout the hotel (although it’s painfully obvious these are actually production stills from the first film). Sophie constantly recalls her mother’s influence over her life. But Streep is nowhere to be seen until the film’s closing moments, which is naturally a weepy highlight. Consider this a public service announcement, just in case you’re expecting anything more.
In Streep’s absence, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again ultimately belongs to Seyfried and James. Seyfried has been one-to-watch since her scene-stealing performance in Mean Girls, and she does her absolute best with the little she’s given here. There’s an attempt at some marital tension between Sophie and Sky, leading to a jarringly edited performance of “One of Us.” But the situation resolves itself so quickly, Seyfried never gets the chance to show us what she’s really capable of. She’s typically engaging and entertaining to watch and her voice is heavenly. There’s just not a lot for her to do but flail around wildly, as the preparations for the hotel launch spiral out of control.
James is really given the reigns to the film and it’s entirely hers to do with as she pleases. With that comes the unenviable task of portraying a character once delivered by a three-time Oscar winner, no less. It’s no easy feat and most actresses would run for the hills than play a younger version of Meryl Streep. But James takes charge and is just as effortlessly enchanting as she was in Cinderella and Baby Driver. There’s a warm and breathless charm to her performance, making it easy to see why three men can’t help but become besotted with Donna. And her singing voice is a dream.
The narrative rightly eliminates any chance of slut-shaming of Donna and her dalliances with three separate men in a very short space of time. If the screenplay wasn’t written with this in mind, it easily could have fallen into the trap of the audience seeing Donna in such a light. After all, the crux of the first film revolved around a woman not knowing which of three men fathered her child. The entire conceit around how Donna winds up in bed with each man is constructed in such a way that it actually makes perfect sense. One was out of pity and empathy. One was her true love who breaks her heart. And the other was simply the rebound guy. If the film only exists to remove the stigma attached to this character, it achieves it admirably.
Donna’s three young suitors and two best friends are all perfectly cast, each seamlessly resembling their older versions, both physically and with similar mannerisms and speaking styles. It’s a little absurd to see three women maintain the exact same hairstyle for 40-something years. But it obviously helps connect the dots between each pair of actresses, so you just have to accept it. Jessica Keenan Wynn is a particular highlight, managing to flawlessly capture Christine Baranski’s usually irreplicable style and flair. Baranski herself steals every moment she’s given, as the provocative and brash Tanya. Brosnan, Skarsgård, and Firth are ultimately relegated to the sidelines in the sequel. Their brief appearances are still enjoyable. And, thankfully, Brosnan is barely required to sing this time.
The biggest disappointment of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is surprisingly its soundtrack. The original film tapped the goldmine of ABBA’s biggest hits for its dazzling setlist. Several of those numbers are rehashed here including “Waterloo,” “Mamma Mia” and what feels like a beat-for-beat restaging of “Dancing Queen.” It means the sequel is left to pick the scraps of ABBA’s B-sides, making for a terribly thin offering of tunes you’ve probably never heard of. Tracks like “When I Kissed the Teacher” (which makes for a decidedly awkward choice in the current cultural climate), “Angel Eyes,” and “My Love, My Life” are far from the best known of ABBA’s discography. And for good reason. They’re all a little naff.
While these songs each fit the scenario they’re placed in, they often bring the excitement of the film to a grinding halt. But when the production goes extravagant with the more popular numbers, it lifts the film right back up and may lead you to dance in the aisles, especially the magnificent curtain-call performance of “Super Trooper” which unites the entire gargantuan cast. It makes absolutely no sense, given these characters exist in alternative time periods, but who the hell cares when you get to see Meryl Streep singing and dancing next to her old pal Cher?
Oh, yes. I haven’t mentioned the majestic appearance of Her Holiness. As you are most likely aware, the indomitable icon makes a cameo appearance as Donna’s estranged mother, which makes no mathematical sense, given Cher is only three years older than Streep. But it’s just one of the film’s many timeline abnormalities you have to overlook. It is a musical, after all. It’s a genre often not limited to the confines of logic. Cher’s entrance into the film is typically spectacular, bringing all the camp ridiculousness synonymous with the singer/actress. She’s really just playing herself here, but it means she gets to deliver a knockout performance of “Fernando” that is the film’s biggest highlight and likely to be imitated by drag queens for decades to come.
The film has some gorgeous location photography, capturing the beauty of Croatia’s stunning island of Vis, the stand-in for the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi. But it’s impossible to overlook the studio-filmed sequences which attempt to replicate natural skies and surroundings with truly dismal results. It’s terribly obvious these scenes are taking place indoors, robbing the film of any semblance of authenticity. Regardless, director Ol Parker knows how to stage a musical number and the entire production is a vast improvement on its predecessor.
At the end of the day, if you hated Mamma Mia!, you’re likely to hate Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. If you loved the silliness of the original, you’re bound to feel the same of its equally-silly sequel. It’s hard to hate on a feel-good film which just wants its audience to have a great time. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is pure escapism, whisking you away for 114 minutes of ridiculous and innocent fluff. It’s a glittery, infectious, camp calamity. How can you resist it?