Here we go again.
When I first saw that subtitle for the new “Mamma Mia!” film, I read it with some contempt. Memories of Pierce Brosnan and pre-“Into The Woods” Meryl Streep singing plagued my memories, and I couldn’t sleep. I put “Mamma Mia!” 2 on my most anticipated summer movies list only because I thought that certainly there was no way it could be good. It was a sequel to a movie based on a musical that butchered the “musical” part by forcing tone-deaf celebrities to sing, only saved by its fantastical cinematography and ABBA soundtrack. It’s a film that I’ve never been able to finish, though to be fair, I’ve never been given the first film a proper shot. Jukebox musical romantic comedies aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I’m a firm believer that with effort, any good genre film can be enjoyed based on the codes and conventions of its native genre, the trick is just picking up on them and adjusting your expectations accordingly.
So for the second film, I was actually able to get into it.
In a weekend where “The Equalizer 2” reigned supreme (otherwise known as “Denzel Washington Elbows People in the Face Repeatedly;” expect to see my full review soon), it was “Mamma Mia!” that turned out to be a critical success, earning the coveted “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, joining “Teen Titans Go! To the Movies” as a surprisingly quality movie (expect to see my thoughts on that movie as well).
And it was earned. Despite not being able to benefit from Streep’s now-developed voice other than a few brief cameo song numbers, and no real source material to go off of other than the first movie, “Mamma Mia!” 2 is a film that’s proud of what it is and goes all out — though we do get a few cringy Pierce Brosnan song moments, and some of the complaints people had with the first film are prevalent in the second.
I think it’s biggest benefit was the energy and vigor put into it by it’s writer/director, Ol Parker, of which “Mamma Mia!” 2 was only his third outing directing a feature film. Parker is responsible for the screenplay behind the critically-acclaimed “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel, and as such, he is a great character writer and character director. With that being said, while I did find his direction to be a bit choppy in the first act of the film, most notably the number “When I Kissed the Teacher” which came out of nowhere, made no sense, and displayed minor film errors, such as when it ended on an out-of-focus freeze frame of our main characters, Parker gradually got a hold on how to direct musical numbers on this scale, and as a result, “Mamma Mia!” 2’s cinematography never stood out in a negative way, other than that first act.
And the writing is superb. Gone are the pandering “dot dot dot” and screeching scenes (you know the ones), which have been replaced by believable and well-crafted dialogues that build our characters up. The film takes place in the past and present, mirroring our main protagonist’s (Sophie, portrayed by Amanda Seyfried) experience with pregnancy with her mother’s, who is played by Lily James. For those unfamiliar with the first “Mamma Mia!” the mother character was portrayed by Meryl Streep, but has passed away in between films, no doubt an excuse to cover up for the fact that Streep most likely turned down the role for the second film, but there was probably a clause in her contract that required her to show up for a sequel for at least a brief cameo. So spoilers! We get to see Meryl Streep’s character as a ghost, and in the past, portrayed by James, which is where we get into the movie’s biggest flaw.
When you have the have past and present intersect, with two very similar-looking characters it is imperative that you distinguish those story threads either through distinct cinematography or set/costume design. Or you could throw up a very visible bit of text that delineates the year. Most films will do the last technique, transitioning to a very noticeable golden tint that delineated that we are indeed in the past (other films portray past scenes through black and white cinematography). “Mamma Mia!” 2 does none of that, transitioning the past and present scenes with dreamlike transitions that, while they may fit stylistically with the ABBA songs the film uses, create no hard boundaries between the past and present era, which employs cinematography of the exact same type. As for set design, the only way to delineate the two eras is the visual wear-and-tear we see in certain locations in the past, versus their spruced up futures, and the biggest flaw by far is how indistinguishable Seyfried and James’s performances as Sophie and her mother, Donna, are, so much so that at first I didn’t pick up on the fact that Seyfried and James were indeed two different actresses playing two different characters until I looked at the Wikipedia summary, which I’ll post a screenshot of here to further spoil the movie for you.
Note that this is not the complete summary, but just skimming it over, you’ll notice the need for the “Back in the present,” “Back in the past” time hops in the summary are numerous, which only serve to complicate the film. Given that there are not clear boundaries between the past and present scenes, and there is very little to distinguish Seyfried and James’s performances — I did skim through scenes of the first film just to make sure, but James in no way tried to portray Donna’s character as consistent with Streep’s performance in the first film (though, to be fair, that might have been a good thing), if anything, she was mimicking Seyfried (or the other way around), and it doesn’t help that the characters of Sophie and Young Donna visually look too much alike — it is entirely possible to assume upon first viewing that the past and present storylines are one in the same, with one central main character with all this stuff happening to her, which creates nothing but confusion. It’s a shame, because in every single way, Parker’s good writing and good character direction benefitted the film, just Seyfried and James’s mother-daughter portrayals of Sophie and Young Donna ended up coming off more as that of two clones, when they should have been two distinct characters.
I also have to question the film’s obsession with the past, rather than forging ahead. I attribute this to the fact that Seyfried would have been a weak lead. In fact, looking back at her filmography, she has been in remarkably little feature films recently, with her biggest acting gig being a handful of “Twin Peaks” episodes last year. This isn’t to say that she’s a bad actress, she did fine in “Ted 2” and I loved her in “Lovelace,” but I’m not sure she’s someone you want to bet the fate of this film off of, especially considering that there is sinfully too little of Streep in this film. James, on the other hand, is still fresh off of “Baby Driver,” and while I think Seyfried and James have very similar characters, James has a level of charisma and energy that Seyfried just doesn’t.
But other than making sense and portraying a distinct Young Donna, the film pretty much does no wrong, and when it does, it seemingly laughs it off, even indulges in it, before moving on. It’s a film that’s not afraid to completely break the veil of reality, giving us some wonderfully over-the-top, well-choreographed moments whose spectacle is worth the price of admission alone. And while Young Donna and Sophie are essentially the same character, we get so much more elsewhere in the movie. We see the young arcs of each of Sophie’s three dads, with Young Harry (Hugh Skinner) being an inexperienced traveler who happens to share some spontaneous chemistry with Young Donna; Young Bill (Josh Dylan), a sailor who helps Donna reach the island in Greece where most of the film takes place, who also ends up having spontaneous sex with Young Donna; and Young Sam (Jeremy Irvine), who falls deeply in love with her and is visiting the island before he is tied down by a job back home. They are matched with their counterparts, Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan) in the present day, three of whom don’t even appear until halfway through the movie, and all add relatively little to the film other than some welcome comedic relief and lighthearted moments. We even get a decent arc with Sophie and her fiance, Sky (Dominic Cooper), who have a few good numbers filled with tension, as they’ve spent 6 months apart pursuing their careers and are faced with the possibility of living apart because of their life choices. And that doesn’t even skim Cher’s grandmother character, or any of Donna’s sidekicks, both their past and present versions.
“Mamma Mia!” 2 is a wonderful mess. While it might fall apart at a technical level, and arguably has too many storylines that are arguably not very deep, they all mesh well together and compliment each other to the point where you don’t care. “Mamma Mia!” 2 is a movie that sets out to do nothing but have fun, filled with characters that while not Oscar-worthy, are all trying to accomplish something and have their own little arcs that set up very enjoyable, quirky musical numbers that will bring a smile to your face. It’s a movie you can nitpick to hell, but vastly superior to its first film; while I was visibly cringing and unable to finish “Mamma Mia!” 1, I was invested, interesting and enjoying its sequel.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again gets a 7 out of 10