The jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!”, based on the music of Swedish pop group ABBA, proved to be a worldwide theatrical sensation. The show ran 14 years on Broadway, has been running in the West End of London since 1999, and hundreds of productions of it have been produced across the globe. It also spawned a film version in 2008 that racked up $615 million worldwide on a $52 million budget. With that kind of success, a sequel is not a surprise, though the fact that it took “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” 10 years to get it onscreen certainly is. That delay has hurt it aesthetically in many ways, and while this second outing has certain charms, its multitude of issues make it more of a mess.
For starters, this film’s very premise is a downer. Donna, the main character from the first movie played so joyously by Meryl Streep, is now deceased, and everyone who knew and loved her returns to her Greek Isle to mourn her. Cue the dancers, right? The constant specter of death may work in a dramatic musical like “Les Miserables”, but it seriously mars the fluffy, buoyant world of “Mamma Mia!” Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is now the main character and she’s busy occupying herself with plans to reopen her mother’s boutique hotel in the Greek Isles. It’s her way of masking the pain, but it doesn’t help that everyone she encounters expresses their dour condolences. In fact, those onscreen here may sing plenty of toe-tappers, but the death of Donna casts a pall over the plot and the film never really recovers from the choice to write her out of the story that way.
Another major issue that spoils so much of this film is its leftover songbook. The greatest hits of ABBA were all included in the first movie, and despite game efforts by the filmmakers to turn B sides like “When I Kissed the Teacher” and “Why Did It Have to be Me” into show-stoppers, these songs only make you long for the better tracks. Not surprisingly, many of ABBA’s beloved hits are reprised for the sequel, including “Waterloo”, “The Name of the Game”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, and “Dancing Queen.” While such ditties are always welcome to the ear, they remind the audience just how much better they were put to use in the first film.
It’s also a major gamble for director Ol Parker and his fellow screenwriters Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis to spend half the film as a flashback telling the origin story of Donna’s arrival at the island. The fact that it succeeds as well as it does is due primarily to the wondrous Lily James as the young Donna. She’s the best ingenue to come out of England since Keira Knightley bent it like Beckham back in 2002. James may not bear much of a resemblance to Streep, but she more than matches her enthusiasm in the role, singing and dancing with joie de vivre that is entirely contagious. When she’s onscreen, it’s easy to smile and forgive the rest of the film’s shortcomings.
That James achieves such is almost miraculous given the obstacles of her male costars. The young Donna has to sleep with three different guys in a matter of days to hit the plot points of the first film. (You’ll remember that in that movie, grown daughter Sophie didn’t know which of those men was her natural father.) Donna’s actions can be read as female liberation, of course, but it plays a bit unseemly given the innocence of Donna’s character conveyed in the flashback scenes. It doesn’t help that all three guys seem unworthy of her amore as well.
Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan are cast to suggest the younger versions of Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard, and they all come up short, seeming callow and dull. Irvine and Skinner even look too much alike, and the latter actor overacts in his interpretation of Firth’s insecure Harry character. Skinner seems to be playing more of a younger version of Firth’s George VI from “The King’s Speech”, and it borders on caricature throughout.
The flashbacks all take place in the summer of 1979, after Donna’s graduation from college that year, and it mars the semantics of age for the sequel. Donna would have likely graduated from college at 21, suggesting an age of 60 upon her death in 2018. However, the math on Sophie doesn’t hold up quite as well. Donna’s baby would have been born in 1980, thus making Sophie 38 in this story. The Wikipedia page, generally uploaded by a film’s studio, lists Sophie’s age as 25, one far better suited for its pregnancy storyline, but it’s inconsistent and screws with the realities of the timeline.
Perhaps that’s looking too closely at all this, but there’s not much else to examine. Seyfried is in fine voice and holds the screen well, but Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard are given precious little to do. They’re mostly trotted out and lined up to watch all the others sing and dance around them. Director Parker and his fellow scripters do better by the Tanya and Rosie characters. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are given some choice lines and bits of comedy to do in their modern-day storyline, and you can feel Curtis’ assured joke writing in all their schtick. Their younger counterparts (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies, respectively) register well too in the 1979 period, ably supporting James in Donna’s backstory.
There are small attempts at conflict in the narrative, but little comes of it. Sophie’s boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper), who’s also the father of her unborn baby, chooses career over love when he tells her he’s staying in London on business. Still, he manages to make it to the grand re-opening of the hotel in the nick of time with little effort. Sophie’s grandmother Ruby (Cher) is set up in the first hour as this whirling dervish of controversy, but as soon as the rock & roll legend shows up to sing a few numbers, all is forgiven. Andy Garcia wisely underplays his role as her long-lost love Fernando (Cue that song!), but don’t pay too much attention to the fact that he’s actually a decade younger than Cher.
The choreography is even less inspired than the song choices this time out, looking rushed and haphazard, and one could quibble about bad wigs and ill-begotten uses of green screen too. At least this sequel clocks in under two hours. (The original was even shorter at 109 minutes, and that was with a three-song encore.) It’s lovely that Streep shows up as the spirit of Donna for the finale, but it only begs the question of why she wasn’t on-hand for more of it.
Sequels generally are diminishing in returns, but this one seems like such a shadow of the first. Waiting 10 years did it no favors. Most of it feels old, tired, and very “been there, done that.” The most this musical does is encourage musical fans to pine for the day when Lily James gets another stab at playing musical comedy. She’s a stunner. This sequel is not.
View the trailer to Mamma Mia 2 by clicking on the image below: