The first Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical in which the plot was clearly written around the songs. ABBA’s songs of infidelity, flirtatious discovery, and radiant living are perfect for a tale of a woman with three suitors who has no idea about which is her daughter’s true father. You can get away with silliness like that because ABBA’s songs are timeless (not to mention impossibly infectious). Here, we have a prequel-sequel hybrid that tries to do the same thing: write some semblance of a plausible story around some of ABBA’s deeper cuts, though taking care to reprise the big ones like “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” to keep audiences happy. We venture into Donna’s younger life, when she was a free-wheeling young woman fresh out of school, looking for purpose and a place to settle. We see her meet her fated beaus, get her heart broken, and sing at every opportunity. We also see this past mirrored in the present, with Donna’s daughter re-opening her mom’s hotel, and having to do it while having relationship troubles and inclement weather. The present timeline is where most of the original’s cast are to be found, while the flashbacks are anchored by a glowingly effervescent Lily James.
There’s nothing really wrong with either timeline, but the one that’s more involving is (unsurprisingly) the one with the familiar faces. James holds her own with the material, and her singing voice is sweet, yet Young Donna’s odyssey is comprised of a mountain of clichés that don’t amount to a new story. The history of Donna’s trysts was covered in the first film, and her feelings for the men made clear then. Nothing in the prequel portion stands out as being essential to the timeline we already know, and because more than half of the film is set in that past, there’s very little to make one care. Whereas, in the present timeline, we have the likes of Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård there to provide gravitas and (in Baranski’s case) some godly fabulousness. I mean, when in the presence of these vets, how does one choose anything else? So it makes sense that, as soon as the film moves firmly back into the present (which is roughly “Dancing Queen” onwards), it soars. The musical selections become note-perfect (um, hello “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and “My Love, My Life”), and the cameos from Cher and Meryl Streep unimpeachable. I could sense my audience jolting to life as soon as the opening bars of “Fernando” came and Cher started singing. From that point on, the film commits no sins, and closes on a grand one-two punch that’s worth a standing ovation.
No matter how faultlessly a film ends, though, you still have to consider what came before, and sadly Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again can’t hide the fact that it’s running on fumes for much of its runtime. I wanted so much to be transported to a realm of sunny goodwill and purity, and I was for the last fifteen minutes or so. But people who extol this film as the year’s most essential feel-good film need to hold their horses for a second and temper their enthusiasm. It’s not that life-affirming.