The first Mamma Mia is pretty simple story about a young woman. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) wants to discover who her true father is out of three possible candidates. All of this is happening in Kalokari, an island in Greece. Simple, simple, simple. This sequel is more complicated and has a bigger story.
We’re still on Kalokari for some of the movie. There, Sophie tries to reach out to her international family, including her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sky’s torn between joining her and keeping a cushy American job. She’s also planning to open a hotel that her late mother Donna (Meryl Streep) longed dreamed of building.
There’s also young Donna’s (Lily James) back story. She starts out as an American valedictorian in a prestigious British university. Despite that, she’s heartbroken that her mother (Cher) prefers to stay Stateside instead of seeing her. So she makes pit stops across Europe before she eventually lands on Greece. The first film seems like an easy task to adapt, albeit blatantly stage-y. On the other hand, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, again, bigger and thus, inherently cinematic. It also makes for more dynamic musical numbers and set-ups.
Mamma Mia‘s original question concerns who Sophie’s father is. Sequels have that perfunctory game of same differences, this one asking who Donna is. For an escapist film this is an important, heavy question. Sophie literally struggles to keep her hotel together from a Herculean sized storm. As she does this she wonders what it’s like for young Donna to build a house out a shack. In a way, it reflects the way our generation reaches for the previous one. Taking inspiration for how they made it. Learning about the secret or not so secret strengths that they had or needed to have to survive.
The flashback scenes are fine. A musical series based on ABBA songs, after all, are a nostalgia trip, if not a calculated one. The outfits are great, obviously. Director Ol Parker and costume designer Michele Clapton conjures up a young Donna who’s a free spirit. There a lot of patterns evoking both the disco era. There’s also some hippie influences that’s still making its mark in the late 70s. Extra points for dressing up young Harry (Hugh Skinner). He, of course, is one of Donna’s lovers, the future businessman dressed as a punk with green shoes. Watching these young version can be, in this aspect, delightful.
James, Skinner, and the actors playing younger versions of the older cast are doing a commendable job. James especially has the difficult task of stepping inside Streep’s big moccasins. But instead of doing an impersonation she just evokes the spitfire that a young Donna must have been. She’s also fine when it comes to the choreography.
But here’s the thing – there are women younger than James who can evoke the dramatic undertones of classic songs. James’ voice, although her tone is great, is too high and doesn’t have that character yet. Seyfried, who sing songs about her own heartbreak a generation later, has the same problem.
Here We Go can’t escape the same problems that most musicals have, even the classic ones. That it’s basically karaoke. This impedes the joyful feeling that audiences should spontaneously feel while watching people sing. That’s especially true here, which takes a long while before it reaches campy heights. Parker can’t get around to some of the genre’s tropes that I dislike. This includes one character asks another about their feelings. It’s as if the musical world works in singing as a therapy session. There’s also the way characters act lovingly out of breath after singing.
Eventually the movie gets it groove through its one liners. The people responsible for that are Christine Baranski and Julie Walters. Without Donna, they’re here as Sophie’s godmothers and who are sexual beings in their own right. It also uses the songs properly, finally, as ABBA deserves not duets but full bodied ensemble vocals. ABBA here is the band that launches a thousand singers. And Donna’s mother’s rendition of Fernando, bringing out the tumult of the song. She reunites with a lost love who happens to be Sophie’s second in command at the hotel (Andy Garcia).
Watching this will make audience think about escapist cinema. The original received mixed reviews with critics, whose idea of an escape must have been comic book films. Marvel was still figuring itself out, and even then audiences could handle its heavy themes. But Here We Go Again is having better luck. It doesn’t live in a bubble, most musicals don’t. It even mentions the economic factors that hit Greece hard. But that doesn’t stop both the locals and tourists from singing. If anything, it helps these characters live on. Its themes of rebuilding and resilience helps, and flaws aside this is the movie we need.