For anyone who cried “Oy Vey!” at the prospect of La Streep singing ABBA in Mamma Mia!, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again promises more nails on a chalkboard. But even fans of the first film may find this sequel disappointing—and not just because Meryl only appears in the last fifteen minutes. In this sequel that is also a prequel, Donna (Streep) has gone on to her reward. She appears mostly in photographs and on screen just long enough to sing a lullaby.
The real focuses here is on two intertwined narrative threads, one set in the past, the other in the present. In 1979, the Young Donna (Lily James) who graduates college and heads to Kalokairi, the enchanted Greek island, finding love with three different men along with way—one of whom impregnates her. The other storyline features Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) hoping to open the Hotel Bella Donna on Kalokairi, while pining for Sky (Dominic Cooper) who is in New York.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again toggles back and forth, sometimes seamlessly, between these two plots. To his credit, director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) keeps things lively during the film’s first catchy musical number, “When I Kissed the Teacher.” And he does an especially good job with the Sophie/Sky duet, “One of Us,” having the performers share the frame and sing to and even with each other despite being continents apart.
But after what appears to be a strong opening, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again flatlines, never to recover. Young Donna meets Young Harry (Hugh Skinner) and helps him lose his virginity after they perform an unrousing version of “Waterloo” in a Parisian restaurant. Young Donna eventually meets the rakish Young Bill (Josh Dylan) and the more rakish Sam (Jeremy Irvine) and romantic complications ensue.
Meanwhile, Sophie frets that her big opening won’t happen after a storm comes in and ruins things.
The first act of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again features a few moments of comedy—dead Donna’s tart-tongued friend Tanya (Christine Baranski) has a few good one-liners—but mostly the film uses its music to show how sad the characters are. Even Old Sam (Pierce Brosnan) sings about how much he misses Donna.
Alas, the modest quality of the film’s musical numbers is not the problem; it’s the lack of emotion, energy, and excitement. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again has all the glitz of a Carnival Cruise ship revue, only audiences are not docking at Kalokairi when the songs end. Even the rendition of the title tune by Young Donna and her friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) is kitschy, but the flamboyant ‘70s-era costumes have more vivacity than the warbling.
The characters all sing and talk about love but the only scene that features any real passion involves two minor characters—a Greek man who risks drowning to prevent the woman he loves from marrying another guy.
Things don’t improve much in the film’s second act. Old Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Old Harry (Colin Firth) turn up and head to Kalokairi to be with Sophie on her big day. Firth’s performance is purely strained comedy, with him doing pratfalls or, with Skarsgård, mimicking Rose and Jack in “Titanic” on the prow of a boat while everyone around them sings “Dancing Queen.” It’s surprisingly uninspired.
And (for watch checkers), thirty minutes later, Ruby Sheridan (Cher), Sophie’s grandmother, enters the film and she gets to sing. However, her rendition of “Fernando” can’t quite be considered a showstopper—but that’s because Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is continually stuck in a predictable groove. It may be comfort food for fans, but it is more bland than bolstering.
Yes, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is undemanding, but that is not its problem. It’s just not much fun. An ABBA musical should be irresistible. Instead, this sequel is simply resistible.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.