Maybe I was predisposed to enjoy Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, since I vividly remember when my mom and I went to see the first Mamma Mia! all the way back in 2008 and had such a great time that we booked it to the adjoining Barnes & Noble and bought the soundtrack on CD. Maybe ABBA is just the kind of band you can’t not jam to, more than 30 years after their peak. Maybe the introduction of new cast members played by Lily James, Andy Garcia and Cher made this movie into something I didn’t just want to see, but needed to see. I was aware of all of that, yes, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would love it.
The plot, such as it is, follows Donna’s (Meryl Streep) daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who has inherited their villa in the Greek isles after her mother’s vague and untimely death. She’s made it into a paradise, complete with sky-blue doorways and photos of her mother on the walls, and has invited everyone from her life, including her three dads, to its grand opening.
Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we see young Donna’s (Lily James) superhero origin story play out her graduation from college and her subsequent jaunt across Europe, which ultimately leads her to the farmhouse in Greece—with pit stops along the way for trysts with young versions of the three men who grow up to be Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth. As Sophie negotiates the trials of party planning in the rainy season and a brief bout of marital unrest, young Donna works out her feelings towards sex, love, relationships, and her future. It’s a lot of heavy subjects to deal with at once, but Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again breezes through most of the plot with the lightest of touches to get to the good stuff.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the movie is less of a movie and more of a showcase of a bunch of actors singing disco songs in a sun-kissed locale (you can practically feel the white sand between your toes). There’s something comforting about a musical based on songs most people already know. If your favorite ABBA number didn’t make it into the original Mamma Mia! then chances are pretty good it ends up in the sequel. Two of the stars sing “Waterloo” to each other in a Napoleon-themed restaurant, James croons “Andante, Andante” in an airy café, and a rendition of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” slingshots us back and forward in time while the young and old versions of our heroes work out their feelings towards each other. Some of the greatest hits from the first go-round reappear, with a new trio belting out the title tune and a climactic scene set to “Dancing Queen” so transcendently silly and delightful I leaned over to my seatmate and asked, “Am I dead??” And dammit if Pierce Brosnan doesn’t take a few seconds to redeem his mostly disastrous 2008 rendition of “S.O.S.” You did good, Pierce. You’re free.
Because this film bounces between the past and the present nonstop, casting believable young versions of Donna, Sam, Bill, Harry, and Donna’s two besties Tanya and Rosie was key, and this movie does such a good job it’s almost disorienting. I’m particularly impressed that the casting director managed to travel back in time and kidnap youthful versions of Skarsgard and Christine Baranski (Josh Dylan and Jessica Keenan Wynn, respectively) because that must be the only way the two young stars could look and sound so much like their older counterparts. Lily James shines as younger Donna—though she may not look especially like Streep, there are times when I got James and Seyfried mixed up, which, I suppose, is the point. When the movie finally gets down to it, the main theme flowing through its postcard-blue waters is the closeness that develops between a mother and her daughter, visible in the ways one life can follow nearly in the very footsteps of the one that came before.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another standout (possibly THE standout): Cher as Ruby, Donna’s mother and Sophie’s grandmother, who shows up uninvited to the shin-dig with a helicopter and an impressive coiffure of hair so white it’s nearly blinding. She’s not in the film for long, but the whole movie builds towards her, culminating in a duet between her and Andy Garcia that’s maybe the hottest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
Though the sequel is directed by Ol Parker this time (writer of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, of course), it looks much the same as the 2008 movie, except for a few unusual shots that might stick in my mind for the rest of my life. There’s one inexplicable but oddly gorgeous scene of James cavorting in slow motion through a grove of orange trees, and a tricky sequence with a mirror that rivals the impossible run from Contact. The costumes in this one are just as airy and vibrant as the last: in the Mamma Mia! cinematic universe, Greece is a temperate paradise whereby government decree all citizens must dress in shades of blue and white when they’re not kicking around in sparkly frilled bellbottoms. I have three tabs of blue denim overalls open and will probably buy them all.
And where the 2008 Mamma Mia! was a movie based on a Broadway musical, its sequel contains choreography and lines that feel geared toward the possible (probable? inevitable?) live theatre adaptation. There are times when the sky in the background looks like an artfully painted scrim, complete with, in one scene, a giant matte moon pockmarked with meteorite scars. Take your moms, take your dads, take your glamorous pop star grandmothers.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is almost aggressively a movie for everyone to enjoy, a bouncy escape from reality where all problems are resolved in the time it takes to belt out a couple tunes. I hope they do sing-along screenings of this movie. I hope they make a theme park out of it, and in that theme park I hope there’s a store that only sells framed photographs of Meryl Streep, curls blowing in the soft summer wind, beatifically smiling into the middle distance.