More melancholy, less fizzy but still a good time.
By Alan Hurst
I know. The first Mamma Mia! (2008) was not a good film. Shots didn’t match, the songs were shoehorned into in places that didn’t always make sense and the plot had holes to spare. But it was fun, it was pretty and it had some very likeable and capable performers clearly having a great time giving us the ultimate cinematic karaoke experience. For pure summer bliss, nothing can beat the combination of the great ABBA pop catalogue, Greece and Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters cavorting to “Dancing Queen” against an idyllic backdrop.
Ten years later (although only five according to the timeline of the story) we have a sequel: Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again! Is it a good film? Of course not. The songs (pulling from what’s left over of the ABBA catalogue) still don’t make sense if you really listen to the words (it’s best not to), it’s a little too long, and you still scratch your head trying to make sense of the chronology and everyone’s age. But it’s better than we had the right to expect. In telling both the back story of Streep’s Donna (played by a lovely Lily James) and the present-day challenges of her daughter (Amanda Seyfried), writer-director (Ol Parker) has crafted a bittersweet tale that’s actually quite melancholy at times, a little more thoughtful in terms of plot and, in the last 20 minutes, gives the audience the pay-off it wants with the return of Streep’s Donna, Cher literally descending from the skies as Donna’s mother and two cheesy but still perfect production numbers featuring the ABBA classics “Fernando” and “Super Trouper” (back again from the first film).
One of the challenges of the film is the fact that all the best, most energetic and recognizable ABBA tunes were used in the first film (which was based on the hit Broadway and West End musical). Some of those songs are back – you have to have “Mamma Mia” and there’s a nicely staged reprise of “Dancing Queen”. But for the most part we’re getting some second-tier ballads (some work, some don’t) and some other tunes that aren’t as familiar. That affects the energy of the film – it’s definitely less frenetic than the first one – but also allows for a little more (emphasis on little) character development, particularly for the back story about the young Donna, her friends and three suitors.
The cast is all game and, for the most part, they deliver. Of those new to the franchise, James is terrific as the young Donna. Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davis are very funny and nice physical matches for their older counterparts, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters. The three suitors (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan) are all very pretty and they can sing. A gentlemanly Andy Garcia is also on board as the manager of the hotel that Sophie is now running.
Of the returning team, Amanda Seyfried is much less annoying than in the first film and has some nice moments as a more mature Sophie. Baranski and Walters are still fun. Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgård have very little to do and even less to sing – and that’s a good thing.
Meryl Streep is also back, but only briefly and, without giving too much away, she does lovely job with her one ballad and is the major reason for the film’s melancholy undertone.
And then there’s Cher. Her presence doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then that seems to be the case with a lot of things in both of these movies. But she’s Cher and she’s like a jolt of electricity – funny, beautiful (with a little help), very cool and she can still deliver the goods musically. Who would have ever thought Cher and ABBA would be a love match?
Both films have interesting timing in terms of world events. The first one opened at the early stages of the financial meltdown of 2008. This one is opening as the world is looking even more bleak. And that may help explain the enthusiastic reaction of the audience when I saw the film – no politics, no “fake news”, no “us” vs. “them”. Just a silly, synthetic, tuneful and pretty two hours of pure escapism.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.