Right from the start, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again uses its title to show us its priorities: ABBA, absurdity, and a commitment to the bit. As someone who loved the stage show, unabashedly, and the first movie, begrudgingly, I was hoping for some light fun. Instead I got an exuberant dance party chock full of laughs. This time there’s more denim, better singing, and, of course, 100 percent more Cher. Mamma Mia 2 leans into the inherent zaniness of its premise, embracing camp and a bawdy sense of humor to show the audience a damn good time.
One of the smartest choices here is the mix of this ensemble cast: Mamma Mia 2 lets us fall back in love with Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) three dads by meeting their younger, better singing selves, played by Hugh Skinner, Jeremy Irvine, and Josh Dylan as they try to woo young Donna (Lily James, who’s no gummer but does an excellent job nonetheless). The present day focuses on Sophie hosting the grand opening of her deceased mom’s hotel with the support of Donna’s living best friends, wisely allowing Christine Baranski to chew up the scenery with as many thirsty zingers and eyebrow-raises as she can cram into just under two hours. Julie Walters, meanwhile, pratfalls around with a wink and a slice of cake.
Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie’s cute but boring husband who’s always the weak link, is wisely relegated offscreen to New York until it’s time for him to make a grand entrance. Yes, Meryl Streep’s Donna is dead, but she does appear here in a limited role. Pierce Brosnan is the most prominent of the three dads (Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård). Brosnan is thankfully used almost entirely for pathos rather than song, and even makes a few deft references to his much-mocked lack of ability. Cher’s appearance is even more sparing, limited to a couple of tunes, great costumes, and a fun caricature of her diva image. Too bad they couldn’t work in a reference to the fact that her onscreen daughter is only three years younger than her!
Massive chorus numbers like “Waterloo” are exactly the big, wacky, show-stopping set-pieces this thing needs. But there’s plenty of emotion here too, mostly drawn from a natural human tendency to mourn Meryl Streep any time she’s not onscreen, combined with Amanda Seyfried’s earnest talent. But it’s the one-liners, set-pieces, and vivaciousness that you’ll walk out of the theater remembering. Whether it’s a delightfully horny Christine Baranksi and a perfectly cast Jessica Keenan Wynn as her younger counterpart, or the Greek passport checker at the ferry who manages to carve out his own story in what probably amounts to five minutes of total screen time, all of the ensemble’s good humor is infectious.
Ironically, it’s the freedom to depart from the limitations of the stage show that allows Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to capture its spirit more fully than the first movie. Free of the Broadway show’s plot and staging, this movie is surprisingly stylish in its direction, courtesy of Ol Parker (who takes over for the very stagebound Phyllida Lloyd). Some creative shots with bicycles early on and a choice to not only include a dancer in a wheelchair but highlight her showed a filmic sense of whimsy that the first movie lacked.
With some songs, like “Waterloo,” the movie’s story hews devilishly close to the ABBA lyrics, daring us not to be charmed by Hugh Skinner as young Harry, playing air guitar on a baguette while wearing a tablecloth and a Napoleon hat and prancing around a French restaurant. On others, like the titular barn burner, only a few lines really make sense in context, but everyone is having so much fun that you really won’t care.
The Mamma Mia franchise is decidedly uninterested in answering its central questions (who is Sophie’s dad, will this hotel’s grand opening be a success), and frankly it’s for the best. The movie lags when it gets bogged down in the mundane details, as did its predecessor. Mamma Mia 2 is at its best when giving us a party rather than futilely attempting to make us question whether there will be one. Mamma Mia 2’s mission is to have a good time with old songs and old friends, and it embraces that fact, gloriously so. Therein lies its smashing success.
Mamma Mia 2 also wears its gender politics casually yet proudly on its glittered statement sleeve. Christine Baranski sets the tone early on when she delivers a spit take-worthy joke involving the word vagina. Young Donna makes a crack about how if motherhood were so easy, men would do it, a nod to the franchise’s premise that fathers are superfluous at best. Flipping the usual script, while the older women are all gorgeous, the men look a little worse for wear, a fact that is accentuated with costuming and commentary. Yet the script isn’t afraid to poke fun at the more over the top moments, and the maddening contradiction of despising men while also dating them.
The cynical among us would note that the story and even the layout of the big number (“Dancing Queen,” natch) allow for most of the movie’s stars to film from separate locations, coming together for as little as possible. Even Seyfried and Streep’s touching otherworldly duet appears to involve some heavy green screen/CGI. But there’s simply no denying that this movie is FUN, and the “Dancing Queen” boat party encapsulates that most of all.
Of course, there’s also a great dance number over the credits, in tribute to the original Broadway show. Set to “Super Trooper,” it features the entire cast, including Meryl, dancing with their paramours, and past and future selves. Even more than the rest of Mamma Mia 2, this final number exists outside of reality, and lets the cast mock their characters and themselves a bit. It’s these final numbers that first garnered the stage show attention, after all: clips of audiences all on their feet, dancing. So dust off your go-go boots and check your cynicism at the door. Take a chance on Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and remember what it’s like to laugh, even if you do it while shaking your head.