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‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ Is a Cinematic Joybomb Sustained by the Songs

The sequel to 2008’s ‘Mamma Mia!’ delivers another fizzy and escapist movie musical

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Four ways in which Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is similar to The Godfather: Part II:

  • It’s a sequel that is actually a prequel depicting the various youthful exploits and sexual conquests of its main character.
  • The score is rad, and a convincing argument for Europe in general.
  • The film’s mood is nonetheless hella dour most of the time, despite constant lavish depictions of casual wealth and hedonism.
  • It’s pretty long.

Four ways in which Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is dissimilar to The Godfather: Part II:

  • Exclamation point in title.
  • OK, so it’s only two hours long, but that’s a long time to wait to get the dopamine hit of “Dancing Queen” again.
  • Nobody dies except [redacted, but only for a few more paragraphs, and I mean, come on, it’s pretty obvious].
  • Cher sings “Fernando.”

“The history book on the shelf / Is always repeating itself,” ABBA sang on “Waterloo,” one of several god-level Swedish pop tunes that does indeed get another full exuberant production number in this, the sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, the smash-hit jukebox musical turned cinematic joybomb. This year’s shock-blockbuster success of The Greatest Showman proved that all movie audiences really want, apparently, is exuberant musicals that all but encourage you to exuberantly sing right back to the screen, so we might as well sing some of the best pop jams ever written. (“Take a Chance on Me” is the best ABBA song. Thank you in advance for agreeing with this.)

And so we’re back on the beautiful (and fictional) Greek island of Kalokairi. (Though Here We Go Again was actually filmed in Croatia, and the Greeks are pissed.) We are once again charmed by the mostly carefree and golden-haired exploits of one Donna Sheridan, played by Meryl Streep as a young-at-heart adult and, in the sequel, depicted in post-commencement flashback by a radiant and yet irritatingly too carefree Lily James. We are once again belting out the likes of “Super Trouper” and “I Have a Dream” at every opportunity. We are relieved that everyone’s back for the sequel: Donna’s boozy and horny best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (the miraculous Christine Baranski), her doting and doe-eyed daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), and Sophie’s three dads, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry (Colin Firth). We are here to reconvene (eventually) on the island for more utopian beach-hotel sing-along parties with not a care in the world, or maybe just one care in the world, in that we are all deep in mourning.

Alright. Spoiler alert coming after this OG Mamma Mia! screenshot of Pierce Brosnan, who can’t sing, singing.

Universal Pictures

Yes, in Here We Go Again’s present-day timeline, Donna, which is to say Meryl Streep’s character, has been dead for a year. No word on cause of death, though there’s even a glass of wine in her hand in her official We’re Still Mourning Your Death portrait on the wall. The sequel actually manages to avoid recycling most of the tunes from the original Mamma Mia!, and ABBA’s catalog is plenty deep enough to sustain a sequel, though these tracks tend to be (relatively) moodier: “One of Us” for a brief marital spat between Sophie and her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), “Knowing Me, Knowing You” for one of young Donna’s various love-triangle situations, and a climactic version of the tearjerker ballad “My Love, My Life” that is very effective. This movie is half-prequel and half-funeral, basically, and the joybomb takes awhile to detonate this time. But it does. Eventually.

At least Lily James gets to play a less vapid and more developed character than she did in Baby Driver, if only relatively. As young Donna, she is in Maximum Rom-Com mode, prancing through three consecutive meet-cutes with three interchangeable studs—the young versions of Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Bill (Josh Dylan), and Harry (Hugh Skinner)—who all start pressuring her into bed within minutes, albeit in a charismatic rom-com sort of way. She says things like, “I have absolutely nothing mapped out, no clue what the future holds” and “Life’s short. The world is wide. I wanna make some memories.” She makes her way to the island. She soothes a horse. She does cartwheels through an orange grove and is chased, adorably, by a goat. She sings a bunch of ABBA songs. Then she vomits, semi-adorably, which in this universe is shorthand for You’re Pregnant.

Written and directed by Ol Parker, Here We Go Again cuts rapidly between past and present—not, like, Sharp Objects rapidly, but it’s an aggressive rhythm that begins to feel a little stiff. Mourning. Meet-Cute. Mourning. Meet-Cute II. Mourning. Meet-Cute III. The best part of the flashbacks are the younger versions of Donna’s best friends: As Tanya, Jessica Keenan Wynn does a startling Christine Baranski impression, and as Rosie, the Welsh actress Alexa Davies almost steals the movie. (“Jesus Christ,” she blurts out when another interchangeable stud appears. “What kind of island is this?”) But it is hard to steal this movie when the actual Christine Baranski is in it, gliding through “Angel Eyes” and delivering lines like, “Be still my beating vagina” and “It’s terribly important to remember how terrible men are.” Get a load of this high kick, man.

Both tonally and chronologically, this is all tricky to sustain in what is supposed to be a fizzy and escapist movie musical, but both films are ultimately rescued by the songs themselves. “Dancing Queen” actually drops early in the first Mamma Mia! in a somewhat abrupt and anarchic manner, triggering a nearly full-cast dance party that climaxes with Streep doing a perfect cannonball. In Here We Go Again, the cannonball gets a callback, and so too, obviously, does “Dancing Queen,” which is once again the moment when everything clicks, when the silly and infectious joy overtakes you, when the very impulse to quibble with the details of a movie like this is revealed to be both foolish and irrelevant.

Quibble if that’s what makes you truly happy, though. Cher shows up, via helicopter, very late in the game as Sophie’s semi-evil grandmother, but her version of “Fernando” is oddly muted and inert, given that she’s the cast’s one actual pop star. (Perhaps the problem is that she’s forced to sing it in duet with Andy Garcia, playing a very broad seducer type whom I felt bad for mentally shorthanding as The Most Interesting Man in the World until late in the film, when he introduces his twin brother, who is actually played by The Most Interesting Man in the World.) But Here We Go Again will get to you eventually: It will surprise no one that this is all leading to a brief Meryl Streep cameo that is, to repeat, very effective. I am no knee-jerk La La Land hater, but it beats the hell out of anything in La La Land.

One request, though. If market forces demand a third movie in this series (Mamma Mia! This Is a Durable Piece of IP), I demand that it be centered, Downton Abbey-style, on the long-suffering hotel staff and all the other island natives who are mostly stuck holding baskets of flowers or cooking things or beaming good-naturedly as all the rich and carefree people chop it up. Is there an ABBA song about unionizing? “Money, Money, Money” would work great, actually. Same deal with “Take a Chance on Me,” which come to think of it would knock ‘em dead in literally any context. That is, after all, what makes it the best.