When the first Mamma Mia! movie musical hit theaters almost 10 years ago on the dot, critics didn’t quite get the tone that director Phyllida Lloyd and the rest of the cast were going for. The over-the-top and unapologetically-dramatic moments were corny, yet (and here’s the key) fun to watch. In a movie landscape that was turning more and more serious and dark in post-9/11 America (The Dark Knight opened the same weekend where it went on to earn over $1 billion at the worldwide box office), Mamma Mia! paved its own path with loads of glitter and lots of spandex with its own box office success to boast. However, in the (now) franchise’s second outing, things just don’t feel the same for the worse.
In a highly misleading advertising campaign, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again kicks off by letting the audience know that Meryl Streep’s character Donna has been dead for over one year and Sophie has turned her mother’s house into a hotel. Sophie is about to throw another lavish party to celebrate the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna and everyone from the original cast from Christine Baranski to Dominic Cooper show up to celebrate the melancholic circumstances. Sophie’s husband Sky is in New York City on a business trip in order to learn the ins and outs of hotel hospitality, so he can bring that knowledge back to Greece where him and Sophie can live a happy and carefree life. While the movie sets up the present-day drama that will later unfold, the movie crosscuts between now and the past, specifically in 1979 to follow the origin of how Donna came to Kalokairi.
The fatal flaw of this film is the movie’s absence of Donna and the joy that her character brings to the table. Instead of character’s erupting into song because of unadulterated bliss while singing Swedish mega-band ABBA’s repertoire, we get characters singing played-down renditions of how things are different with the death of Donna. In interviews giving by director Ol Parker, the decision to essentially write off the character of Donna was not due to Streep’s unwillingness to be a part of the movie, but a purely creative decision that Streep agreed to and signed off on. The creative team shoots itself in the foot this time around by removing the heart and soul of this now-franchise by killing Donna’s character off and leaving the remaining characters to carry on Streep’s star power and acting prowess, which the original cast manages to do, but the new faces here (not due to their acting performances, though) unfortunately bring down the picture.
Lily James, who plays the young Donna, does a good job with what she’s given in the script. When an actress is asked to take on a role that was originated by Meryl Streep it’s a daunting task in and of itself, but James is the one bright spot in the new cast. The other supporting new cast members do manage to capture the essence of their older counterparts, particularly Hugh Skinner (who plays Young Harry) who has one of the better musical numbers “Waterloo”. However, all of the new cast members were disserviced because this story was already told (although briefly) in the original movie, which makes for a zero-stakes story, because we all know how this part of the story ends.
If you want to nit-pick even further, the logic of this movie doesn’t make sense with the logic laid out in the first movie as well. When Sophie finds her mother’s diary just days before her wedding to Sky, the diary reads that Donna meets Sam first in July and then meets Bill and Harry the next month. However, in the sequel, the order of when Donna meets the men is reversed. To some, this wouldn’t matter, but this mistake in the “lore” of the Mamma Mia! franchise highlights that the creative team assembled for this movie misunderstood what made the first Mamma Mia beloved by the older moviegoing demographic and the LGBTQ+ community. Instead of giving what the target audience wants to see, this movie feels more like a cheap cash grab that gives us well-delivered lines by the cast, than a legitimate sequel.
But there are some great moments in this misguided venture. Cher does not disappoint and gives a show-stealing number towards the end when she makes her glamorous entrance. In fact, the entire cast doesn’t make a fool of themselves. The movie truly shines when the classic ABBA songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Fernando” are performed. Also, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, and Amanda Seyfried singing “Angel Eyes” is perhaps the closest the film comes to the first movie in terms of quality and entertainment.
With a story (if you even want to call it a story) that holds no stakes at all, this film is utterly forgetful in an ever-increasingly competitive market of better options to watch (like the first Mamma Mia!). When the next Mamma Mia! inevitably comes out, hopefully there’ll be better direction, better choreography, and better production value, where the audience can’t tell if a shot is green screen or not.