Before this week, I had never bothered to watch Mamma Mia!, the 2008 jukebox musical inspired by the songs of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA. Wanting to review its sequel, which is being called unnecessary by most, I took it upon myself to find out what all the fuss was about. So I sat down, fired up Netflix, and took a chance (pun intended). I hated every second of it. I found the movie loud, spastic, annoying, stupid, nonsensical, lazy, and neverending. I thought it had poor camerawork (the whole thing is shot like a bad soap opera), annoying and brainless characters, horribly unnatural dialogue, and a paper-thin plot. You can imagine my dread as I entered the theater for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (a title that sounds like a warning) and braced myself for the worst. Now imagine my complete shock as I left that theater in a terrific mood, having thoroughly enjoyed what I had just watched. I’m just as surprised as you are.
Here We Go Again, once again, doesn’t exactly have much of a plot going on in it. It acts as both a sequel and a prequel, jumping back and forth between Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) in the current day as she prepares for the opening of her hotel, and flashbacks of her mother, Donna (Lily James) in 1979 as she graduates college and goes to the island of Kalokairi, all whilst being wooed by the three young men who end up being Sophie’s potential fathers. The film manufactures drama by adding in the fact that no one, including two of Sophie’s fathers, can make it to the hotel’s opening due to a storm, and to make things worse, her (now-husband? Fiancé? Still just a boyfriend?) partner, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is far off in New York City, where he’s been offered a full-time job, pulling him away from Sophie and the island.
It would all be kind of pathetic from a storytelling perspective if director Ol Parker hadn’t miraculously found a way to make it work and keep your attention, but find it he did. Throughout all the singing and dancing, there’s a continuous undercurrent of melancholy and nostalgia that surrounds the film, allowing for moments of genuine emotion that the first film sorely lacked. The entire movie is framed around the idea that our time in this world is fleeting, so we should live it to the best of our ability, have as much fun as we possibly can, and share that fun with our friends and family. You would think that the Mamma Mia! franchise would only be able to express this in the corniest of ways, but thanks to actual natural-sounding dialogue and the use of the film’s length to let moments sit and be thought on, Here We Go Again pulls it off with style, and it’s sure to leave some viewers a little misty-eyed.
The songs are fun and catchy, even though they recycle a good amount of them from the first film. I’m assuming they knew that most people in the audience just wouldn’t care, and I’m sure that they were right. The choreography is a blast to watch, taking full advantage of the space, and each number looks like a vast improvement from the dances of the first. Everyone in the cast looks like they’re having an absolute ball (who wouldn’t, these movies are basically a paid vacation at a beautiful place for these actors), and the songs actually arrive naturally and serve a purpose, whereas two-thirds of the songs in the first movie just happen out of the blue and never seem to accomplish much of anything. You’ll be bobbing your head and tapping your feet to the music the whole time, along with the rest of the audience.
The sequel trades out the horrible screaming, forced laughter, and lame slapstick humor from the characters in the first movie for actual jokes with actual setups and punchlines, and most will get genuine chuckles from people. The whole thing just feels like so much more of a real movie as opposed to the first one feeling like a bad, low-budget high school production. The sweeping shots of the island are breathtaking, however it is hilarious when some scenes are shot on an obvious set, complete with characters staring longingly out into a beautiful green screen. I’m more willing to forgive it this time around, perhaps because Here We Go Again seems a bit more self-aware as opposed to the unintentional campiness of the first.
The film isn’t without its problems. Like the first, POC characters are used mostly in the background as props and backup, but this time at least three of them receive speaking roles. Progress? Let’s face it, we all know the target demographic for this movie. In addition, Donna’s journey of self discovery in faraway romantic locations, coupled with her carefree and free-loving attitude, is something only achievable by the young, the beautiful, and of course, the rich and the white. Despite being plastered all over the marketing, Cher (in her first film appearance since 2010’s Burlesque) only arrives for the last five minutes, in a helicopter no less. They make the most of her time though, giving her the best quips and shooting off fireworks around her as she sings. Like I said, the self-awareness is strong. The movie also seems to end, with all of its problems resolved, but then, just like its predecessor, decides to continue for another 20 minutes or so.
I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a really fun time at the movies. It’s filled with joy and light and great music that you’ll instantly be singing along and dancing to. It’s the perfect summer detox from the endless cycle of bad news that currently dominates the world. It’s silly and at times even ridiculous, but it’s delivered in such a genuine manner that you welcome and embrace the silliness of it all. Our time is fleeting, and the end comes for us all eventually, so why not spend it with the ones you love, having as much fun as you can? You can do just that by seeing this movie this weekend. All that said, you may have to take everything I’ve written here with a grain of salt. I had a strong drink before watching this movie. But maybe that’s the perfect, and intended, way to enjoy it.
3.5 / 5 Stars
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is now playing in theaters everywhere.