Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a predictably safe but charming return to the ABBAverse
When Mamma Mia! became a smash hit a decade ago, it did so because of its boatloads of charm. While many agreed it was structurally messy and bogged down by a minimal plot, the unabashed fun of seeing Meryl Streep (Doubt) and company glam their way through Swedish band ABBA's greatest hits catalog was too glamorous to ignore for most. Banking on the success of that film, doubling down on the effusive energy and perhaps even improving upon its formula, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a needless but admittedly effective return to a world where glitter runs rampant on the shores of Greek islands and people think Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye) can sing.
Set a year after the (never explained) death of Streep's Donna, the film follows her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls) as she prepares to finally open the hotel Donna always dreamed of opening. Helping her along the way are Donna's best friends Tonya (Christina Baranski, The Good Wife) and Rosie (Julie Waters, the Harry Potter franchise), her three fathers (Brosnan, Colin Firth, The King's Speech, and Stellan Skarsgård, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and husband Sky (Dominic Cooper, Preacher). The hotel plot is intercut with lengthy flashbacks featuring a young Donna (Lily James, Baby Driver) as her path crosses with the three men who would eventually come to call themselves Sophie's fathers.
While the film has a serious lack of Streep, save for a few cameo numbers, the flashback elements give the film a sense of purpose that seemed lacking in the previous entry. It's absolutely unnecessary to see the young Donna meet the young versions of Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgård's characters, but for fans of the first film, the result is cutesy enough to work. The credit for the strength of these portions should absolutely go to James, whose effortless charms do not go to waste here. She is engrossing in every scene she's in, commanding the screen in a way that does justice to the fact that she's playing a younger version of the most celebrated actress of our generation. James has some solid help in relative newcomers Jessica Kennan Wynn and Alexa Davies, playing the young versions of Tonya and Rosie, respectively, who are easily the comedic highlights of the film, easily filling the shoes of Barsanski and Waters.
Of course, like its predecessor, the film has its problems. The fathers are again acting out of their element here, with only Firth truly seeming at all comfortable in his role and Brosnan delivering a somehow even worse solo. Part of why these films are perceived as awkward at times is because the actors are cast based more on their star power rather than their experience, resulting in a cast that's seriously devoid of notable stage work. Musical films only work if their actors are up to the task, and it's hard to capture that energy on screen if you've never starred in a musical production off screen as well.
Other members of the ensemble are underused, such as Cher (Moonstruck) as Donna's long absent mother (Cher is 3 years older than Streep, so this is pretty inexplicable other than the fact that Cher is Cher) and a handsomely bearded Andy Garcia as the hotel's manager (Ocean's Eleven). There's so much going on in the film that these performers, among others, get buried under the weight of the sheer number of musical portions, which have a heavy presence that pushes the limits of how bearable the film's energy can be at times. With a little breathing room to allow the plot to expand, the actors could have put in more narrative work and really fleshed out these characters.
Ultimately, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again doesn't reinvent the wheel. It won't turn viewers who dreaded the original film onto its conceit, but will dazzle those loved it. It's a more confident, if equally corny, entry into the musical film lexicon. And if that's your sort of thing, my my, how could you resist it?