Look, let’s not pretend like the original ‘Mamma Mia!’ (2008) was a great film. It lacked any sophistication, was badly directed, thunderingly obvious, had some pretty shoddy vocal performances, and was saccharine enough to cause a sugar headache. And yet - and yet - despite its flaws, something incredibly infectious about it really connected with audiences, making it a huge hit. I’ll even admit, as silly and badly made as I think it is, I kinda still love it for its sunny disposition and its often cracking ABBA musical numbers.
But does it need a sequel?
‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ moves between being a sequel and a prequel. In one timeline, we’re seeing Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) about to open the newly renovated hotel in honour of her recently deceased mother Donna (Meryl Streep). In another, we follow young Donna (Lily James) as she discovers her love for Greece, and her romances with the young Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan) and Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Sophie’s three potential fathers. By discovering her mother’s past, Sophie finds the strength to face her future, not just without her mother but in becoming a mother herself.
Whether this sequel matches or betters the original is a complicated question. In some respects, this is a stronger piece of filmmaking, with writer/director Ol Parker (writer of the ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ films) finding some sturdier visual flair than Phyllida Lloyd had with the original. It’s also not a simple retread of the original, with an effort to expand on the story and the characters (to an extent), as well as other songs from the ABBA catalogue.
In other respects though, it falls short. The links between the two timelines are tenuous at best, and that pretty much speaks to most of this sequel, where the links between anything are pretty flimsy. The original had the benefit of the musical as source material, and while it was hardly great storytelling, it had a narrative through-line and a tension that this new film almost entirely lacks. The backstory about Donna’s youth is often quite entertaining, but the modern sequences are thunderously boring and a tad stupid, giving the film a lopsided feel. Segues into songs are even more obvious and dumb, betraying the film’s need to include new songs over plot; for every one that works with some kind of goofy charm, many more fall very flat. The modern sequences also have a fake, almost candy-coloured quality to them that feels too unreal and make them harder to connect with, and even a cinematographer as accomplished as Robert Yeoman (who works extensively with Wes Anderson) can’t seem to make the visuals of the film work. It’s also not as sexy or as romantic as you’d hope, with the sun-kissed Greek setting and Greek bodies taking a regrettable backseat. Basically, ‘Here We Go Again!’ does little to justify its existence both as a continuation or an artistic achievement.
And yet - and yet - I’ll be damned if something about this bloody film still works. For one thing, the songs are still really great and often performed really well, and while none of the musical sequences are a scratch on the aplomb and general batshit craziness of the original, they still get your toes tapping and deliver some lovely moments. And much like the original, so much rests on the shoulders of the cast. While the original cast have much less to do with their crappy timeline, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters make the most of it, Baranski in particular delivering three of maybe the most iconic lines of dialogue in any film in 2018. Jeremy Irvine continues to leave regrettably little screen impression, but Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan have oodles of goofy charm as Harry and Bill, and match beautifully to the likewise goofy charm of their older counterparts Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård.
These films know exactly what they are and what the audience expects of them, and they deliver with enthusiasm, even if they’re an artistic vacuum.
(One quick complaint though: why is the fact that Harry is gay even further buried in the sequel? Come on guys, it’s 2018, why can’t you give Colin Firth some gorgeous boyfriend/husband and not just play his character’s sexuality as a bunch of coy jokes? Any bet we’ll be hearing about some "deleted scene that featured a more explicitly gay moment" for Harry in about a week or so.)
And yes, Meryl does turn eventually up in one of the film’s more moving moments, and Cher’s arrival as Donna’s mother Ruby is as camp and bizarre as you would expect (the segue into her song is flat-out preposterous). The real standout is Lily James, who bursts across the screen with so much vivacity and charisma and charm. This should come as no surprise by now with Lily James. Honestly, it’s almost impossible now for me to be objective about her; I just love her that much in basically everything. It’s also just so obvious how much fun the cast is having, and while it isn’t as infectious as it was in 2008, seeing Colin Firth throw himself around a yacht dancing his head off is still kind of a joy.
So, did ‘Mamma Mia!’ need a sequel? Not really. Is it any good? Of course not. But does that matter? Hardly an inch. These films know exactly what they are and what the audience expects of them, and they deliver with enthusiasm, even if they’re an artistic vacuum. In many ways, they’re pretty much critic-proof, and in a good way. They’re not sexist or racist or homophobic, they’re not mean-spirited or promote intolerance, so if they’re making people feel great and giving them a good time, what the hell does it matter whether they have any artistic merit or not? I mean, at the very least, it’s a hell of a lot less repulsive than ‘The Greatest fucking Showman’.
So if you liked the original, ignore my star rating and just go see it. You’ll probably laugh at it more than with it, but if this camp nonsense is your jam, you’ll probably find its enthusiasm almost as infectious as you did in 2008. Hell, I’ve even listened to the soundtrack three times the morning after. Sometimes you don’t need a film to impress you with its artistry or cleverness. Sometimes you just want something silly and sunny and saccharine. And there ain’t many other films that fit that bill better than a camp Mamma Mia! extravaganza.