It’s been ten years since “Mamma Mia!” hit theaters and took the world by storm becoming the highest grossing live action musical ever for the time. Universal Pictures was always interested in continuing the story and now here we are ten years later nearly to the day and that sequel is finally here. With even more ABBA songs incorporated into the plot and new characters and old favorites coming into play “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” had an audience and could have easily been a simple retread sequel offering nothing new. Surprisingly it didn’t follow that path, but is this enough to make is a superior second entry in the series or does it fall flat like Pierce Brosnan’s singing in the original? Sorry, bad play joke…Anyways here’s my review of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”, which I will refer to at “Mamma Mia 2” in most of this review, takes place five years after the first movie. Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) has taken over the hotel on Kalokairi after her mother Donna, (Meryl Streep) has passed away. Sophie finds stress in trying to bring new life to the hotel in preparation for its grand reopening and trying to live up to her mother’s legacy while she also experiences struggles in her continued relationship with her now-husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie finds comfort in her stepfather/father Sam (Pierce Brosnan), her mothers best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) and the hotel’s manager Fernando (Andy Garcia). While Sophie tries to work through her issues we see the story of her mother in flashbacks as the younger Donna (Lilly James) meets the younger versions of Sophies “fathers” Bill, Sam and Harry and comes to be the owner and caretaker of the hotel. As the two stories overlap revelations of what transpired before the events of the first movie come to light and Sophie is forced to come to terms with who she wants to be for the rest of her life with a slew of ABBA covers mixed in as the music for the story.
I’ll admit that I was not the biggest fan of the first “Mamma Mia!”. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA to begin with and I felt some of the performances and choreography and cinematography in the original were lacking making for an average musical. I can say without the shadow of a doubt this movie is a major improvement. Not only did I find myself having a fun time following a story I could truly get invested in, this film just felt more enjoyable, sincere and well put together. Relieved of the confines of living up to the expectations of fans of a stage production “Mamma Mia! 2” forges its own path and takes many more chances which in turn gives the audience a lot more to sink their teeth into. The cool thing about this is the original playwright Catherine Johnson did help create this story as well although the screenplay was actually written by the director, Ol Parker. “Mamma Mia! 2” tells a pair of overlapping stories exploring the past and the present with parallels being made between the two. Truly effective emotional revelations are made all the more believable by the random ballsy and unexpected killing off of the main character Donna right off the bat. While I initially questioned this decision I thought it provided a great platform for the story and in the end I found the whole experience well-paced, much more immersive and engaging and even the music felt much more fitting of the scenes where they were worked in, which I’ll touch on later. It is, to be blunt, a superior sequel on nearly every level.
Of course the cast has a lot to do with it and not just the returning cast members either. To start with the familiar faces though we thankfully get to see mainstays like Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep explore much deeper emotions in their characters through song rather than the infinitely bubbly take on these women in the first movie. Actually, there’s a delicacy and vulnerability to many of the characters that take center stage that was ignored in favor of colors and optimism in the first film. “Mamma Mia! 2” allows the actors and actresses to dig a little deeper to truly bring their musical numbers to life with purpose and they pull it off fantastically. Don’t let this more emotional approach get you down though because this is a musical dramady at heart and there are plenty of uplifting and hilarious moments of true levity littered throughout the movie as well that all work to perfection thanks to a charming and witty cast. Even more impressive is the casting of the younger counterparts of the main characters including the likes of Lilly James, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan. These actors and actresses represent the younger versions of Donna, her friends Tanya and Rosie, and the three fathers of the first movie Sam, Harry and Bill respectively. The casting choices were not only appropriate when making visual comparisons. These character’s don’t only look the part they perfectly capture youthful versions of the personalities of their older counterparts making for believable pairings that are impressive to behold. A lot of care and dedication went into making the older and younger versions of characters consistent and it shows as each performer, young or old, brings charisma, spunk and incredible vocal prowess to the big screen.
While I already kind of mentioned it I want to touch on how much better this film incorporates the music that was selected for the soundtrack. We do get a few carryover tunes from the original like “Mamma Mia!” (of course), “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” but the new additions to the soundtrack, again all ABBA songs, aren’t only impeccably performed they are also much more fitting for the points at which they come into play in the story. Whereas the first movie felt like it was created simply to justify the songs, the songs here feel justified by the story in this second film which is what every musical should strive to accomplish. There are more ballads in this movie as well, which compliments the more somber and emotional tone of this film, and when the tempo does jump up a level it really is fun to experience. I found myself not only tapping my toes but even singing along at times without even realizing it despite my reservations when it comes to ABBA songs. Every song and performance, fast or slow, is infectious and mesmerizing leaving little room for boredom to set it.
Finally, I enjoyed the theatrical qualities of “Mamma Mia! 2”. At times the cinematography and set designs actually reminded me a bit of “La La Land” as the film never forgets its theater roots. In fact I’d say this film is even more theatrical, in a good way, than its predecessor and owns the legacy of the movie as a stage production with over-the-top colors and a more artistic presentation that may not look impressive or real but reminds us that this story is not meant to always be grounded in reality. That’s a long, complicated way of me saying that “Mamma Mia! 2” embraces the live theater aesthetic in just the right way to add great splashes of unique visuals to the big screen in a manner that almost makes you feel like you’re actually watching a play more than a movie. It never tries too hard to be something it doesn’t have to be and respects its origins and roots through subtle visuals that also work to take the action beyond the walls of the hotel. This and the above-mentioned qualities help make “Mamma Mia! 2” one of the most enjoyable modern musicals to date and one that knows its audience but respects those who want a little bit more substance out of the story and music.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Sadly, it’s some very basic errors that bog down “Mamma Mia! 2” and keep it from reaching cinematic perfection in my eyes. I’ll start with some wasted characters because this movie doesn’t do EVERYONE justice. In fact, despite having bigger names attached like Andy Garcia and even Cher as Sophie’s grandmother these names are totally underused. Cher actually doesn’t even feel necessary as her story arch is literally here and gone in less than a song and despite all the buildup to her appearance she adds nothing at all to the story. She’s simply there to justify using one specific song, which also happens to justify Andy Garcia as well, and add a superstar songstress to the mix probably for a bit of pandering. Even Meryl Streep feels wasted because she’s only on screen for a single song before taking part in the credits performance. While her lack of screen time is actually justified by the story it still feels like she is underused. However, the one performance she does take part in is also one of the best of the entire film so if they were going to use her only once that was a great moment to do it. You’ll see what I mean if you take the time to watch.
“Mamma Mia! 2” also commits the same error as its predecessor by focusing much more on music than actual dialogue. Yes, the pacing, song choice and story are all improved but we still have only mere minutes of true one-on-one interaction between characters before another musical number kicks in. Like the first movie, “Mamma Mia! 2” doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to get to enjoy intimate conversations before it breaks out into a ballad or up-tempo tune to drive the scene forward. While it’s not quite as guilty as the first movie in this regard it’s still a bit annoying at times especially when these songs interrupt what could have been some very tender moments. This approach even forces the movie to rush through certain scenes and while this doesn’t water down the impact of these interactions it does show an inability, or unwillingness, to trust that the audience could be invested in character development and interactions without a familiar ABBA song to help them along. There needs to be a balance and while this film improves on that it’s still much more skewed towards the music than the dialogue which proved to be the most annoying aspect of this movie for me as a viewer.
I also felt like the film didn’t quite own every issue it lays out over the course of the story. The main conflict of Sophie’s emotional distress over living up to her mother’s legacy remains intact and is delightfully, and heart wrenchingly, presented with conviction. However, the minor B-story conflicts all resolve themselves pretty much in minutes making you wonder why they were even there. Side character romances, a storm that blows through Sophie’s heavily decorated grand opening party and even Sophie’s rocky relationship with Sky are all resolved so fast that I personally never even had time to invest in them. They never seem to be big problems at all. There’s a lot of buildup but no real satisfaction in the resolution because not only do we now what’s coming, we have no real reason to think these issues will impact the story in the bigger picture. They all just seem to be added emotional weight for Sophie that are resolved just in time to help her through her roughest emotional moments in the movie. Thankfully the conflicts that this movie truly owns outweigh the side stories that had potential but never really reach those heights as they’re simply dropped in a frankly rushed final 20 minutes of story, the one part of the film where pacing was thrown right out the window.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is fantastic, even if it’s imperfect. With better singing, even more perfected performances by an even larger cast, and music that is much more suitable for the story rather than the other way around this sequel is superior in every way to the original that took the world by story a decade ago. It acts as a pleasant prequel-sequel hybrid and offers great laughs, effective tear-worthy drama and moments of sincere struggle mixed with great moments of levity all with a presentation that turns this simple story into a cinematic spectacle in its own right. The filmmakers didn’t learn everything from past mistakes, and even make some new ones especially in the wasted appearances of bigger names, but “Mamma Mia! 2” hits all the right notes all the same in more ways than one and had me hooked from the first minute to the last. If you were a fan of the first movie you’re going to get everything you want and then some from this offering and if you weren’t too fond of the original take it from someone who also wasn’t a huge fan, this second offering ups the ante in all the right ways and is certainly worth checking out.