Spawned by a film no one predicted would be as successful as it was, which was adapted from a musical that itself was a huge surprise hit, comes a sequel that is — predictably — made with more money, wit and craft and yet remains faintly disappointing. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the follow-up to 2008’s smash jukebox musical Mamma Mia! (it earned over $600 million worldwide), is the cinematic equivalent of a B-side (digital-age readers may need to Google what that means): adequate, blessed with a few good hooks and likely to have its fervent fans. But no one would be paying much attention if the other one hadn’t been such a big deal.
Indeed, the movie’s biggest failing is that so much of its soundtrack, the very engine that propels it, is made up of far too many actual B-sides, or at least lesser-known tunes from the back catalogue of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the two Swedish singer-songwriters who made up half of the 1970s pop quartet ABBA.
The first film/stage production, an ingenious if silly contraption, consisted of a tacked-together tale (about a young woman, the daughter of a single parent, getting married on a Greek island and inviting the three men who may or may not be her father to the wedding) reverse-engineered around a collection of solid-gold hits, with every single one a toe-tapper. That is, if your toes are triggered to tap by the sound of lush orchestrations, close-harmony singing and deceptively simple but secretly musically sophisticated melodies, further stimulated perhaps by memories of ’70s fashions in all their lurid, glittery glory. “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trouper,” the title track “Mamma Mia” itself — they all fit that bill.
The pickings are decidedly thinner for Mamma Mia! 2.0. There’s a reason such tunes as “When I Kissed the Teacher,” “Kisses of Fire” and “My Love, My Life” didn’t become hits on the same scale as the aforementioned tunes. (Hint: They’re kind of crap.) This left the producers and filmmakers behind Here We Go Again with a particularly tricky challenge if they were to fulfill the mandate of all sequels: Offer more of the same but make it a little different.
Given that familiar, sing-along-able songs are so integral to the Mamma Mia brand’s appeal, the solution they’ve elected to use here is a compromise, one that patches together a story out of the leftover tunes but intersperses them with exactly the same colossal hits we already know and love from the first time around. It’s a solution both fantastically audacious and profoundly, bizarrely lazy. Imagine Rodgers and Hammerstein deciding to do a sequel to South Pacific and just recycling “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” because, hey, everyone loves those ones.
With that major caveat out of the way, it’s possible to acknowledge that there are many elements in this assembly that hugely improve on the original. For a start, the script — credited to Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who also directs here, derived from a story by Parker, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) and Catherine Johnson (who wrote the book for the original Mamma Mia!) — is leagues better than its predecessor. Generously salted with witty one-liners that sound particularly Curtisian with their self-deprecating, oh-so-British cadences, the screenplay also has more emotional depth and complexity. That is especially true because it is structured around the — spoiler alert! — ensemble’s collective grief over the early death of Donna (Meryl Streep), the hotelier from the first film whose dalliance with three men back in the late ’70s led to the birth of her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the bride whose wedding is the centerpiece for the first musical.
Adroitly calling back to the first film with lots of reincorporated details (There’s the diary! Check out the dungarees!), Here We Go Again shifts back and forth between two timelines. In the present, Sophie and her stepdad Sam (Pierce Brosnan) strain to get Hotel Bella Donna, a redevelopment of Donna’s old farmhouse hotel on a Greek island, ready for a splashy relaunch to which various old friends (everyone of note from the first film) are coming.
Meanwhile, thanks to the magic of visual effects and nifty match cuts, flashbacks reveal what happened all those years ago when newly graduated Donna (played this time by a peppy Lily James) first arrived on the island and had affairs with Sam (played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine), Bill (Josh Dylan, and a returning Stellan Skarsgard in the present) and Harry (Hugh Skinner, scene-stealer from TV comedies The Windsors and Fleabag, and latterly by Colin Firth).
To reveal much more about the plot risks spoiling the fun, but only those who have been living in caves for the last few months will be unaware that Cher features crucially in the story as Donna’s estranged mother. The film takes its sweet time finally getting her onscreen, but her entrance is worth it, a drag-queen-style showstopper that starts from the stilettos and works its way up, designed to get queens of all genders jumping to their feet or bowing down in adoration, according to inclination. For a duet with Andy Garcia (almost inaudible through the swampy arrangement), there are even fireworks — deservedly for a tune that Johnson just understandably couldn’t find a way to work into the first edition but which comes into its own here. It’s basically the movie’s highlight, just as the cleverly jimmied-in production of “Waterloo,” sung with gusto by Skinner and James, is the helium that keeps the midsection aloft.
Parker, a more competent and imaginative director than Mamma Mia!’s stage-show holdover Phyllida Lloyd, likes to assemble the musical numbers in such a way as to recall the very earliest days of pop videos, with snappy editing or Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots of choreography veering on abstraction. The result is to make this feel much more like a throwback to old-school musicals in all their corny glory. It helps that the cast looks like they’re having a right old hootenanny of a time, practically winking at the audience, in on the joke all the way. And best of all, we don’t have to listen to Brosnan’s atrocious singing too much.
Production: A Universal Pictures presentation in association with Legendary Pictures/Perfect World Pictures of a Playtone/Littlestar production
Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Andy Garcia, Celia Imrie, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Hugh Skinner, Pierce Brosnan, Omid Djalili, Josh Dylan, Gerard Monaco, Anna Antoniades, Jeremy Irvine, Panos Mouzourakis, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori, Togo Igawa, Colin Firth, Anastasia Hille, Stellan Skarsgard, Susanne Barklund, Cher, Jonathan Goldsmith, Meryl Streep
Director-screenwriter: Ol Parker
Story: Richard Curtis, Ol Parker, Catherine Johnson
Producers: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman
Executive producers: Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks, Richard Curtis, Phyllida Lloyd, Nicky Kentish Barnes
Co-executive producer: Steven Sharshian
Director of photography: Robert Yeoman
Production designer: Alan MacDonald, John Frankish
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Editor: Peter Lambert
Music and lyrics: Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus
Composter: Anne Dudley
Music director: Martin Koch
Music supervisor: Becky Bentham
Choreographer: Anthony Van Laast
Casting: Nina Gold
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes