Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, please don’t make me go back


Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again truly begs the question if we should return to Kalokairi and the tunes of ABBA.

A decade has passed since audiences were treated to the melodious tunes of ABBA performed by the likes of Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in the first Mamma Mia. The adaptation of the popular Broadway musical was considered a gamble back in 2008.

“Who would want to see a movie about ABBA songs? Wait, people are paying to see this on-stage.”

Full confession: I did pay to see Mamma Mia on-stage and loved every second of it. The movie was flawed, but it was the greatest interpretation of the show we’d ever get. Nowhere did anyone say, “You know, I want to see more from this world.”

Well don’t ask and you’ll probably get it anyway, because Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again.

Taking place several years after the events of the first film, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of Meryl Streep’s Donna, is now set to open a hotel in honor of her mother. But everything that can go wrong does, leaving Sophie to reflect on her own mother’s journey to the island of Kalokairi in the ’70s.

This “presequel” seeks to answer questions already established in the original film while giving us more information on what’s happening currently that might be interesting if it wasn’t told so broadly. If you’ve seen the first Mamma Mia, you know about Donna’s travels to Greece and how she met three men, one of whom fathered her daughter.

The entire plot of that first feature is a mystery that’s unraveled by the end. But screenwriter Ol Parker misinterprets the adage of “show, don’t tell” by taking us all the way back to that time where a young Donna, played with maximum cuteness by Lily James, frustrated by her own mother’s seeming abandonment flees into the wilds of Europe and meets three men she sleeps with in rapid succession.

And make no mistake, the movie doesn’t seek to do anything more with the flashback than show how quickly everyone decides to sleep together. For a movie that clocks in nearly two hours, the movie introduces Donna, her two friends who apparently haven’t changed their hairstyle in 40 years (played by Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies), and the three boys with all the flair of spitting their names out.

There’s little actual romance derived from Donna’s interactions. The audience knows her true love is Sam (played by Jeremy Irvine as youth), but we wouldn’t know that short of seeing Streep’s interactions with Brosnan in the first film. In fact, James’ Donna seems to possess more chemistry with young Bill (Josh Dylan) than Sam purely based on the abundance of scenes between the two. So when Donna cries over Sam’s cheating ways — leading to a rendition of the title song — the audience asks “But why him?” But don’t worry, we at least learn just how Donna found her patented overalls!

Most of the cast seems happy to be there, particularly Lily James. It’s hard to see how this woman would transition into Meryl Streep — like Bill Skarsgard, it’s surprising that neither of Streep’s daughters was considered — but James is darling. She’s the perfect blend of blonde hair and sunshine, with a smile that lights up the room. She has the throaty vocal cadences Streep had in the first film, proven right at the start with the opening performance of “When I Kissed the Teacher.”

Kennan Wynn and Davies are also charming as the younger incarnations of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie, respectively. There is an allusion to young Rosie having a crush on Bill — the script acts like they’ve known each other for years despite meeting two seconds prior. That is meant to pay off in the sequel, even though there’s no indication established in the original film; one of many moments outright ignored from the decade prior.

If you’re coming to watch Cher, it’s recommended to arrive over 90 minutes in. She’s mentioned a few times prior to arrival but it’s only with about 25 minutes left in the film that she makes her grand debut as Donna’s mother, Ruby (mind you, Cher is just three years older than Streep.) I’d easily watch a movie about the relationship between young Donna and Ruby because Cher is just as compelling as James. The audience only knows that Ruby is a big hit in Vegas, and that’s understandable. Her presence is palpable the minute her foot touches land and it’s a travesty that she doesn’t have more to do than sing “Super Trouper” and “Fernando.”

The returning cast veer towards the tired (Brosnan, Skarsgard and Firth are just there for continuity and wander around) to the bored (Dominic Cooper really doesn’t want to be in this and it shows). The problem is the narrative undercuts everyone by cramming in two separate stories.

Colorful characters like the local Greek bandleader and a man desperate to stop his love, Apollonia, from marrying, seem introduced to act as rickety bridges between stories, but end up seeming more defined than the main cast. Seyfried is vaulted to leading lady status in this movie, but here entire performance extends to looking sweet, and introducing characters. Her argument with husband Skye (Cooper) has been festering for months, but one phone call is all we get to see of a relationship that apparently went belly-up right after the wedding. Were the two so desperate not to appear together? Because it seems that way.

The biggest failings are in the songs. All the hits American audiences know were utilized in the previous film, so the movie utilizes B-sides, deep cuts, and music written for an ABBA greatest hits album. This is to say the songs definitely sound like music you’d skip over on the record. With the exception of the opening number, “When I Kissed the Teacher” and the songs recycled from the first film, the rest of the numbers are melodious ballads. It’s doubtful this soundtrack will be played as often as its predecessor.

The movie tries to employ techniques utilized from The Greatest Showman — acapella especially  — but it leads to all the ladies sounding the same (a lot of head voice here) while the men are just thankful they’re on pitch. And compared to the original’s use of aerial shots to show the mass choreography, everyone is pretty motionless in the numbers, with the camera focused on one or two people dancing. The scenes with James as Donna and the Dynamos are more kinetic, but they employ glam rock techniques that result in a lot of stomping and arm flailing.

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again can’t hide the fact it’s a blatant cash grab no one, including the cast, necessarily needed. You won’t be tapping your toes to the new songs, and outside of James, the script doesn’t appear interested in telling a story.

There is a solid closing scene with Seyfried and Streep, because without her appearing audiences’ would riot. Still, it’s a small chink of light in a two-hour spangled hellscape.