Director: Ol Parker
Screenplay: Ol Parker
Starring: Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Andy García, Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Cher, Meryl Streep
Runtime: 114 Minutes
The original Mamma Mia! adaptation of the 1999 jukebox musical of the same name was one of the runaway success stories of 2008. In a summer already stocked to the gills with every fare of blockbuster imaginable, this star-studded European gala stormed the box-office, blasting out the greatest tunes of ABBA like the worlds rowdiest wedding party. The film was an absolute mess, but a kind of glorious one where it’s many shortcomings kind of added to a collective sense of chaotic fun that struck a chord with many.
But it also felt like a one-off. A novelty of a feature that couldn’t possibly strike lightning twice, especially given the distance and hindsight from the original film. All the signifiers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again falling significantly shorter were screaming out. The rushed production gathering a new cast of younger, hotter versions of the original cast (also returning) to retred the original film scene-by-scene and song-by-song in a remake, hiding in a prequel, disguised as a sequel.
There is no way it should be able to work, and yet, as with the first film that managed to rewrite the laws of reality by bending itself around the everlasting songs of ABBA, the unparalleled sense of content joy that radiates from the screen is almost too much to gauge. It just helps that this follow-up is overall just a better made and more stable feature than its predecessor.
Taking place five years after the events of the first film (don't even attempt to make sense of the inconsistencies), Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) is preparing for the grand reopening of her mother Donna's (Meryl Streep) hotel, who passed away a year earlier. But it also features flashbacks to 1979, telling the story of Donna Sheridan's (Lily James) arrival on the island of Kalokairi and her first meetings with her daughter Sophie's three possible fathers.
Despite the fears of it pouring over the same storyline as described in the original, it’s actually the B-storyline involving young Donna that feels like the true calling that the series has been craving all along. Saturated with sunlight, colour, fabulous costumes and the vibrant energy of a young and totally game cast playing youthful analogues of the older cast, the swooning sights and sounds of the era almost perfectly compliment the tunes being belted out.
Lily James stands at the centre of it all, and if there’s one big reason to see this other than to revisit some old favourites then it’s her. She’s absolutely fantastic as the young Donna, carrying all the charm, power and sex appeal of her characters carefree life so naturally, and manages to channel some of Streep’s mannerisms too.
From the moment James and her companions (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies both doing their best Baranski and Walters impressions) arrive in vivacious dancewear, disrupting their stuffy graduation to the sounds of "When I Kissed the Teacher", it just hits the ground running. The younger versions of Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgård in Irvine, Skinner and Dylan all acquit themselves awkwardly enough, even if Skinner’s range is as shockingly flat as Firths for the “Waterloo” number.
No longer bound by the basis of its source, this new story finds new and more natural ways in which to incorporate the songs and it’s all the better for it. Director Ol Parker finds fresh and occasionally imaginative ways in which to stage the sequences, and it’s overall just better lit and directed than the previous effort. His screenplay also charges forth with a new sense of confidence, Here We Go Again is far more aware of its own absurdity than the original and routinely encourages the audience to laugh with it and it’s cast as opposed to at it.
The older cast is surprisingly fun the second time around too. Although clearly turning up for the paycheck, they come at it with a devotion and vigour like being in the company of old friends. They can’t sing, they can’t dance, but they’re clearly having the time of their lives doing it, and watching figures like Firth and Brosnan boogie like drunk dads against the sparkling Adriatic Sea is a sight to behold.
But something else that Parker brings on a writing front is that same sense of melancholy that carried through his Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and it might be the film’s secret weapon. There’s a passionate sentiment at the heart of this story that drifts in and out in moments of surprising emotion. From Brosnan’s sombre and heart-breaking minor rendition of “S.O.S.” to the catharsis of watching a young Donna and co liberate themselves at the title track blares, it handles the sensations of joy and loss through memory very well. Culminating in an unexpectedly powerful climactic beat to the sound of "My Love, My Life" that will cripple the emotional nerve centres of specific audience members.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again isn’t a great film. It still shackles its narrative to a rocky foundation of disparate songs and there’s a significant lack of development for many of the supporting cast members beyond having them turn back up. But as a follow-up that wasn’t anticipated beyond those who were already ardent fans of the first, this is an improvement on that film and so much better than it should be. Fun, warm and emotionally alive with a buoyancy that goes beyond the mere appearance of Cher.