Full disclaimer: I did not like the first movie. I am a huge fan of ABBA and their music, but I could not ride along the story, which I found selfish and superficial. In ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’, Sophie takes the lead this time, no longer selfishly throwing horrible surprises to her mother. She has finished the hotel her mother had always wanted and is preparing for its grand opening.
At the start, everything is going wrong. The pressure is on to make it just the way her late mother had envisioned. But things aren’t well between her and Sky, and only one of her three fathers are on the island, and her mom’s best friends, Tanya and Rosie, are coming to give support. But a storm is coming and through flashbacks, Sophie discovers what her mother, Donna, went through to get to the island and finds a parallel between their stories.
The biggest struggle that ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ has is its emotional one-note that runs through its narrative. There is no real struggle or conflict in the story, and so the film feels like one plot point after another, with contrived platitudes of positive energy, with a song and dance number to punctuate each moment.
Even as a feel-good musical, the narrative of ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ never feels strained nor is there anything really at stake. There’s this veneer of perfection throughout the whole story that you know everything is going to turn out well that it feels frictionless. You can’t hold on to something or grasp anything because nothing ever feels real or weighty.
The story jumps from present day with Sophie and the hotel, and the story of young Donna and her adventure to find herself in a Greek island that is also dismissed as just this magical “gut feeling that she has to go,” and she meets the younger versions of Sophie’s three dads.
In the telling of this story, time is warped in such a way that love and affection comes and goes so easily that it simplifies emotions to such a degree that it can’t hold any sense of actual romance. The film relies too much on the fabulous songs of ABBA and doesn’t do its part, narratively, to help support the emotions and the weight of the songs and their message.
In a relatively short sequence (in the rather bloated 2-hour running time), young Donna and young Sam experience their meet-cute, fall in love in a week, and then break-up over the discovery of a lie, and they sing ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’, which is a powerful breakup song of a couple who have gone at it over a long period of time. None of that lyrical power makes any sense for what comes across as a summer romance.
Nothing really sticks in ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ except for Lily James, playing the young Donna. Even the magnificent Christine Baranski barely registers outside of her hilarious delivery of Tanya’s quips, and everyone else is hardly even trying. But Lily James is captivating as a free-spirited young woman from the 70s, who is believable that everyone would fall in love with her. She’s filled with so much energy and joy and spirit that she fills the screen. She moves and sings like it’s second-nature and she’s the only real bright spot of this otherwise by-the-numbers musical.
But that’s just me. There were quite a few people in the audience who were laughing and clapping at the film’s end. For me, other than Lily James, the only real enjoyment I got from ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is just the reminder of how wonderful ABBA’s discography is and I’m excited to listen to their songs again.