The first Mamma Mia was a huge hit (close to $610 million worldwide box-office) a decade ago, despite critics making every effort to drive a stake into its ABBA-singing heart. And now the global stage smash-turned-hit film rises again in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Don’t bother to get your stakes ready. Like Trump voters, fans of this jukebox-musical franchise see only the good in it, despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Even Abba apostles will have to admit it hurts that Meryl Streep is barely in the film, for reasons we’re honor-bound not to spoil – which is silly, since you can find out the reason in tweets and blogs from here to the remote Croatian island of Vis, where the film was shot. Still, her absence is deeply felt since the three-time Oscar winner sang and danced her heart out as Donna Sheridan, the single mom who ran a hotel on a gorgeous Greek island where she planned the wedding of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). It’s Sophie who sent out invites to three men – Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) – believing one of them is her father.
Jump ahead 10 years, and Sophie – now pregnant – is working hard to reopen her mother’s hotel. Her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is busy working in Manhattan; Sam is the only one of the fathers able to break away. The young woman is glum. And so is the movie, whose spirit is (hint) funereal, until the arrival of Donna’s irrepressible best friends – Rosie (a perfect Julie Walters) and Tanya (the ever-priceless Christine Baranski) – who once rocked out together as part of Donna and the Dynamos. Everyone sings nonstop, even the actors who shouldn’t (looking at you, Brosnan) and the score by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (the male half of Sweden’s pop quartet) is strictly from their B-side, leftovers collection.
Things perk up with the appearance of the smashing Lily James – so good in Baby Driver – who plays the young Donna in flashbacks. She’s a knockout. Filmmaker Ol Parker, standing in for the original’s director Phyllida Lloyd, gives the actor time to to stretch out and show her talents. He also seems fully committed to rampant silliness he sprinkles on the screen, and his script boasts welcome story contributions from the tartly funny Richard Curtis. But nothing can save the herky-jerky, prequel-sequel setup of the plot, as Donna meets one-by-one with the younger, studlier versions of Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Harry (Hugh Skinner) and Bill (Josh Dylan). The dudes are pretty but shallow, which leaves James, dropping her sugary Cinderella image, to add the spark the film needs. Her “Waterloo” number, set in Paris café and partially sung live, is an exuberant kick. But the shadow of Streep, who shows up late, looms large. Donna’s big song, “The Day Before You Came” (one of the last ever written by Abba), lets Streep sing and act with a genuine emotional clarity the rest of the film sorely lacks.
Nothing stops the Abba tunes from their relentless march into your ear canals. James is sweet-sexy on “I Have a Dream” and puts real zip into “The Name of the Game.” But “When I Kissed the Teacher”and “Kisses of Fire” typify the kind of Abba songs no one needs to hear again. The sequel works best when its high on the fumes of its proudly cheeseball concept. Feeble attempts at character development just bog it down. You wait forever for the movie to find its animating spark.
And finally it comes, in the ab-fab person of Cher, basically playing herself in the role of Ruby, Donna’s livewire mom. The Dancing Queen enters the movie as if on a magic carpet, wearing a platinum wig and attitude for days, aghast about becoming a great-grandmother. “I’m not putting that part in the bio,” says Ruby, and Cher – who at 72 is only three years older than her movie daughter – brings out every ounce of sass in the line. With the singer/icon on screen, the audience enters kitsch nirvana. She imbues the essence of Cher into “Fernando,” making the Abba song soar and flirting outrageously in a duet with a moonstruck Andy Garcia, who plays Rudy’s great love from the past. Naturally, his name is Fernando.
The last part of the movie, which brings the whole cast together on “Super Trouper,” is almost worth the price of admission. Millions will happily get drunk on the film’s infectious high spirits. For the rest of us, who can’t get with the program, Here We Go Again will go down as more of a threat than a promise.