Two reasons to watch Mamma Mia!, 2008’s film adaptation of the popular musical featuring a rundown of Swedish pop sensation ABBA’s greatest hits: the chance to hear those catchy chart-topping tunes, and the chance to see them performed by some of Hollywood’s top talent, including 3-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep.
Neither of those really apply for the belated sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, however. Since the filmmakers can’t just re-use all of ABBA’s greatest hits this time around, what we get is more like a parade of ABBA’s not-so-greatest hits, or a B-side to the original’s A.
Sure, there’s a few catchy tunes that weren’t used in the first film, like Waterloo, Angel Eyes, and Fernando, but the majority of the music in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is decidedly lesser ABBA. Halfway through, the filmmakers almost seem embarrassed to briefly slip in the title track during a loosely-choreographed barroom number.
And sure, it might have been embarrassing to hear Pierce Brosnan warble his way through SOS, but this time around the top stars don’t get much of a chance to belt out ABBA tunes at all. Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård are only briefly in the movie and don’t get a chance to sing. And Streep? Streep’s Donna, the main character of the first movie, is long dead this time around.
That came as a real surprise to me, given Streep’s top billing and prominence in the Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again promotional material. I went back and checked: all footage of Streep in the trailer is recycled from the first movie. But she does, indeed, show up as a ghost in the final moments of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to collect a paycheck and prove that the marketers aren’t complete liars.
Mamma Mia! didn’t have much of a storyline to hang the musical numbers on – Brosnan’s Sam, Firth’s Harry, and Skarsgård’s Bill gather on a fictional Greek Island to find out which of them is the father of Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) – but Here We Go Again can barely manage an inciting incident.
In the present-day storyline, Sophie has renovated her mother’s beloved hotel along with manager Fernando (Andy Garcia) and plans a gala opening party with all her family and friends. But oh, no! There’s some bad weather, and the all decorations are ruined! And will everybody, including on-the-outs boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) be able to make it out to the island after the ferry is shut down due to the rain? The drama here is the cinematic equivalent of MacArthur Park, though the cake is spared from the downpour.
But that’s only half the film. In extended flashback sequences, Lily James stars as a young Donna, who… painfully recounts the story that we already know from the first movie, sleeping with a young Harry (Hugh Skinner), a young Sam (Jeremy Irvine), and a young Bill (Josh Dylan), and shortly thereafter producing a baby Sophie.
James is effortlessly charismatic, and even radiant during the song-and-dance numbers, but no replacement for Meryl: far too contemporary-feeling for the 1979-set scenes, she’s not going to leave a good impression on anyone expecting Sophie’s Choice-era Streep, which is a shame since she’s the best thing in the movie.
The young versions of the three male leads ain’t bad, either. Skinner is a standout in an campy performance that seems inspired by Firth’s stuttering character from The King’s Speech, and he leads Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’s best scene, a nicely-choreographed Paris bistro rendition of Waterloo that sees him battling French waiters with baguettes.
Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are also back as Donna’s best friends, as are younger versions of their characters (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) in flashbacks. Baranski and Walters steal a nicely-staged version of Angel Eyes, but their counterparts don’t get a whole lot to do.
And then there’s Cher, who steps into the movie with 20 minutes to go and grinds the whole production to a halt. Her presentation of Fernando, a duet of sorts with Garcia, is so out-of-tone with all the other numbers in the movie I can’t tell if it’s bad or good; it might be the latter, a genuine pop singer finally taking the stage after a barrage of karaoke performances.
If you genuinely enjoyed 2008’s Mamma Mia!, there’s enough familiar-feeling material here to warrant a watch. But with second-tier ABBA musical numbers and an absence of Streep that may leave some viewers feeling conned, I can’t imagine even diehard fans rating Here We Go Again anywhere close to the original.