Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Swedish pop songsmiths Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA put another nickel in and give their greatest hits an exuberant re-spin, and the happy consequence is the summer screen’s number-one guilty pleasure.
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Ever since her uncredited (but, of course, professionally dispatched) cameo in Stuck on You, the world has been aware Meryl Streep can—and will—do anything. Now, with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, she takes on her first sequel—well, somewhat.

Just to make it a unanimous gang’s-all-here reunion, La Streep dutifully tagged in for a full week of filming—plus the all-important photo op. In screen time, all of that comes out to one whole song (“The Day Before You Came”) and a verse or two of the credit-roll dance-off with the entire starry ensemble (“Super Trouper”)—and even that isn’t easily arrived at: Her character, Donna, must return from the grave to do it.

That’s right: The lively centerpiece of the Dancing Queens is no longer alive, but her sun-kissed, Greek-isle Hotel Bella Donna is. Her daughter, Sophie, whose non-wedding you may have attended in 2008’s Mamma Mia! (or even earlier via the stage smash), has decided to pay homage to Mom by reopening the rundown joint.

Invites go out to Donna’s band-mate Dynamos, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), and the UN contingent claiming paternity of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried)—the Swedish Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), the Irish Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and the British Harry (Colin Firth). Oh, yeah—she remembers to ask her now-husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), who has been learning the Wall Street ropes away from her.

A late arrival who’s accorded a cinematic drum-roll reserved only for superstars is Donna’s pop-star mother, Ruby (another Stuck on Me alumna, Cher), who learns she’s on the brink of great-grandmotherhood (“I’ll be leaving that out of the bio!”).

Ruby’s quick to catch the roving eye of the hotel’s manager and roué-in-residence, Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia, who, after Book Club, is becoming quite the geriatric lothario)—but all you need to know here is “Fernando.” When Cher explodes into that mating call—across a crowded room, as they used to say—she carries the film to a whole new level. There are fireworks even before the fireworks! “Waterloo,” staged in a French restaurant, also gets a vibrant, energetic rendition.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is basically a tangled tale of two timelines—a sequel-cum-prequel that zigzags concurrently (sometimes confusingly) from 2018 and Sophie the budding hotelier to 1979 and her who’s-your-daddy origins. This knotty little problem first unraveled in the original musical/movie after three fathers of the bride showed up for the ceremony. The Mamma Mia! There We Went portion of the program fills in those baby-making blanks in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion.

Cue the millennium B-team to execute these flashbacks: Lily James, in a starry turn, takes over here as young Donna, graduating summa cum laude from Oxford in true ABBA style—by shedding her somber black robe for a flashy jumpsuit and bringing onstage her Dynamos backup, Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), to ruffle this staid event with a raucous rendition of “When I Kissed Teacher.” Lest that seem out of tune for our #MeToo times, the teacher is played by Celia Imrie, who starts out shocked but soon bumps-and-grinds with the best of ’em.

Young Donna’s graduation present to herself is a sexual world tour where she initiates a gay and virginal Harry (Hugh Skinner), hops a sailboat ride with Bill (Josh Dylan) and makes mad Mediterranean love to Sam (War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine).

A full decade has been chewing on the oldsters, but all have pluck and are fun to be around. Firth, going light on the lavender, enjoys himself most among the middle-agers. Of the youngsters, Irvine does an uncannily accurate vocal approximation of Brosnan, and Wynn is a spot-on facsimile of Baranski, who is heavenly haughty. While it may not be very ’70s, the hairstyles of both generations remain rigidly identical. And what young person back then would utter the word “awesome”?

Judy Craymer—who came up with a big, bright blockbuster concept for public consumption, arranging a fluffy storyline around the raging ABBA hit parade—lead-produces this film with Gary Goetzman, with Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hanks (Rita Wilson) and the songwriters as executive producers. Said storyline for the first go-round was something Catherine Johnson seems to have deftly lifted from Melvin Frank’s delightful but forgotten 50-year-old comedy, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.

For Round Two, she collaborates with two of the wittiest, most blissfully benign scripters in Britain, if not the world—Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually) and Ol Parker (The Best and Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). The latter directed with aggressive good cheer, tickling the mind with echoes of the first film (the armada arrival and bumpy jeep ride uphill of hotel guests).

They make these short stretches between songs playful and painless, dealing the funniest frontal lines to Tanya, both old (“Have him washed and brought to my tent”) and young (“I just want to be upfront and tell you I visually enjoy you”).

But the music—not the play—is the thing Mamma Mia! is all about. Five ABBA behemoths from the earlier edition (among them, “I Have a Dream, “The Name of the Game” and the title tune) strut their stuff with robust reprises. The rest of the current score is padded out—still profitably!—in second-shelf ABBAs: “Angel Eyes,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” “My Love, My Life,” “I Wonder (Departure),” “Kisses of Fire,” “One of Us,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “Why Did It Have To Be Me?”

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a minor miracle of a musical, something you never thought you would ever see. Buckets of restorative bucks thrown at it helped it happen, and the money shows in the gorgeousness of Robert Yeoman’s location cinematography (of Croatia, not Greece), Alan MacDonald and John Frankish’s production design and the era-tripping costumes of Michele Clapton.