About halfway through Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the opening bars to “Dancing Queen” started playing and I started crying.
If there’s one stroke of particular genius in the new movie musical sequel, it’s the way in which it juxtaposes the earworm pop superficiality of ABBA with extreme, deeply felt emotion.
This is a Mamma Mia! movie, which is to say: Very! Silly! Yet it is a movie that deals with life, death, dreams, marriage, friendship, and family with an explosive intensity that can only be matched by the sight of Cher in a platinum blonde wig and culottes belting out “Fernando” with Andy Garcia while a seizure-inducing fireworks show lights up the Greek sky behind them.
Released 10 years after Meryl Streep in a disco jumpsuit singing “Super Trouper” took in a surprise $600 million at the box office and became the film most constantly on rotation in my living room, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again takes what made that movie an instant camp classic and turns up the volume, without losing the (polyester) fabric of the original.
Those Greek skies and water? Bluer than before. The ABBA songs? More random. The ridiculousness? More unabashed. The performances? Did you not read the part about Cher singing “Fernando?” And the emotional stakes, well, they’re raised to a level at which MERYL STREEP IS DEAD! My god.
Part prequel, flashing back to scenes in which Streep’s character, Donna, is a twenty-something free spirit, and part sequel, it is a movie about motherly bonds, the various relationships that make up a family, and, in some respects, hotel management.
It is also a movie in which Meryl Streep is dead and everyone can’t stop crying at the mere mention of her, to the point where the only thing that can cheer them up is Cher arriving and singing a song. This is an alternate reality that is extremely relatable.
It’s a cinematic afghan blanket, with its goofiness, emotional earnestness, Greek landscape porn, deranged choreography, and erstwhile joy crocheted into a familiar aesthetic any fan of the original film is immediately grateful to swaddle themselves in, especially in these times.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will move you: move you to groan, move you to tears (at least three times, per my count), move you to spontaneously applaud at a Christine Baranski line reading, and move you to butt-dance in your seats. And, for the love of Pierce Brosnan attempting to sing again, move you to smile.
When a sequel is born out of a movie (and Broadway musical before it) so batshit—Meryl Streep runs a hotel on a remote Greek island, her daughter is getting married, and she invites three men who might be her dad to the wedding—there are obvious burning questions when, a decade later, the creative team decides to pick up the story.
Is Meryl Streep’s character really dead? Yes, WTF!!!??? To be honest, you miss her presence terribly. Lily James, who plays Donna in flashbacks, is charming, and Amanda Seyfried, as Sophie in the present-day scenes, is a sparkplug. But they’re not Meryl Streep in overalls singing about how she’s been cheated by you and she thinks you know when! It’s all pretty jarring and rather sadistic, actually. Here is the Mamma Mia! sequel you were craving, but we killed Meryl!
Are there even any ABBA songs left to sing? Well, they’re certainly scraping the bottom of the barrel, unless you happen to be a big fan of “When I Kissed the Teacher” and “Andante, Andante.” Thankfully, the film also features “Waterloo” and the aforementioned “Fernando,” both of which were missing from the first film, and then just starts reprising all the greatest hits: “Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Super Trouper.”
Does Cher make up for no Meryl? It is impossible to oversell Cher in this movie, though she is only in it near the end. It’s not just “Fernando,” either. Her line-readings are a goddamn delight. Did you honestly think they wouldn’t be? It’s Cher! Snap out of it!
Finally, is the movie terrible? That seemed to be the instinctual fear. The hilariously campy Here We Go Again title. A movie musical sequel—remember Grease 2, anyone? Could it possibly be good? Listen, folks. If you’re buying a ticket to this movie, you’re buying a ticket to see Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard ham it up while dancing to ABBA songs. You get what you pay for, and then some.
The first half film is admittedly a bit of a slog. (Frankly: boring.) But there’s a beat—literally a beat; it happens when Lily James starts singing “Mamma Mia”—when everything turns around and your heart literally soars from that moment on until it just about bursts during the full-costume, full-cast (Meryl included!) curtain call.
What’s unique about Mamma Mia! is that usually we’d write a joke about how in a project like this, the plot is secondary. But the Mamma Mia! plot is laughably complicated, with its three dads insanity, and Here We Go Again dutifully follows suit.
In memory of her dead mother—still can’t get over that—Seyfried’s Sophie is fulfilling Donna’s dreams to make the hotel a posh vacation destination. It’s the eve of the hotel’s opening, and the whole gang’s getting back together to celebrate. Understandably, Sophie is constantly thinking about her mother, who was about her age when she moved to the island, and that’s when the film flashes back to Lily James as Young Donna.
These sequences essentially dramatize the “dot, dot, dot…” stories from the original’s “Honey, Honey” number, in which Sophie reads Donna’s diary and learns how she met Sam (Brosnan), Harry (Firth), and Bill (Skarsgard). But, while all the performers playing the young versions of these characters are certainly appealing, and it’s here that we finally get a “Waterloo” number, the more these flashbacks wear on, the more unnecessary they become.
We already had a whole movie that established Donna and Sophie’s intense mother-daughter bond and her complicated history with the three dads. We don’t need these flashbacks to reiterate it. Stretching that one song out into half a movie doesn’t escalate the dramatic tension. We already know how it resolves. More, it takes us away from the most dramatic tension of all: A world in which Meryl Streep is dead!
The pleasure of the movie is in revisiting the characters from the original, and it’s irritating to not spend the entire time with them. Sophie, slight as these movies may be, is the best role Amanda Seyfried has had. The character description for Sophie might as well be “the human version of Amanda Seyfried’s big eyes,” for all the wonder, spunk, and brittle emotion the role requires.
Christine Baranski and her Big Dick Energy is back shooting off innuendo-laden one-liners like poison darts, and Julie Walters may be singularly responsible for resuscitating the sequel’s beating heart each time the action returns to present day. (Christine and Julie: Name a more iconic duo. We’ll wait.)
And Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard are skilled enough actors to run amok with the movie’s cheesy-as-hell spirit, the kind of movie in which a person spontaneously bursts out in ABBA song and random strangers at a restaurant, hotel, or town square become background dancers.
So much of the choreography is just massive groups of people running, biking, hiking, skipping, and dancing en masse from one location to another, usually jumping into water at the end. People slow-mo jumping into water is the Mamma Mia! equivalent of a lens flare or a CGI explosion, the money shots that the audience came for. It’s wonderful.
That’s what’s so amazing about the “Dancing Queen” sequence that made me cry. It wasn’t stripped down into some somber acoustic remix. On the contrary, it was an ecclesiastical celebration.
At a peak emotional moment, those familiar synths start blaring, the ABBA ahhhs start cooing, and the camera pans to a fleet of yachts carting dozens of tanned extras (plus Colin Firth) performing chaotic bits of choreography. It’s a rousing vision: these superhuman beacons of joy who thrive on the Greek sun and Swedish pop music alone for sustenance, shimmying and singing their way to reuniting a family.
The world sucks right now. This image, so utterly ridiculous, was downright healing. I can’t wait to see it again.