'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' is escapist fluff of the highest order
Welcome back to the magical island of Kalokairi, a sun-strewn rocky outcropping in the azure Aegean Sea, a land where white people can only express themselves with the music of Sweden's most enduring musical group, ABBA.
The sequel/prequel hybrid "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" arrives a decade after the bonkers filmed adaptation of the stage musical "Mamma Mia!" Vehicles for ABBA's songs, the films perfectly reflect the music: guileless, emotionally raw and unabashedly cheesy, wrapped in miles and miles of colorful synthetic fabric.
This many lovelorn ABBA songs requires quite a story into which to shoehorn the tunes, and "Mamma Mia!" tripled down on love lost and found with three spurned lovers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and Harry (Colin Firth), returning to Kalokairi for the wedding of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who hoped to find her father. Now, she's accepted all three men as adopted dads, and she's reopening the hotel after her mother's death (yep, there's almost no Meryl Streep here). While she gives tours to visitors around the property, she reminisces about her mother's journey to the island, right out of Oxford. We get the part of the story previously only detailed in a journal, of young hippie Donna (Lily James) and her three wayward lovers.
James has proven a winsome presence in "Cinderella," "Baby Driver" and "Darkest Hour," but "Here We Go Again" is a breakout superstar moment for her as the free-spirited, earthy and open-hearted Donna. She's an inspired singer and dancer, and every time the film cuts away from her story is a bit of a disappointment — even though it's always entertaining to see what new ways the filmmakers have dreamed up to humiliate Skarsgård and Firth.
But young Donna's story is so much more emotionally engrossing, and the casting of Donna's friends, the Dynamos (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) is spot on, as well as her lovers Harry, Bill and Sam (Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan and Jeremy Irvine). The newcomers all take to the wild rules of this cinematic universe with gusto.
Director Ol Parker takes over writing and directing duties from Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson (who wrote the book of the stage musical). Richard Curtis also gets a story by credit, and it makes sense — Donna is right in his wheelhouse, given his proclivity for writing sensual, carefree American babes.
In Parker's hands, the sequel is far more grounded and melodramatic, lacking some of the rambunctious pop and fizz Lloyd brought to "Mamma Mia," the cinematic equivalent of trucker speed. There's a lot less running and singing, and singing while running, but there is, of course, a flotilla of boats filled with people enthusiastically performing choreography to "Dancing Queen."
There's also still enough crackpot insanity to go around: a particularly surreal version of "Waterloo" is set in a French restaurant, and Christine Baranski gets several crackerjack lines. "Have him washed and brought to my tent," she opines after assessing Andy Garcia's seductive Senor Cienfuegos. We haven't even gotten to Cher yet, who arrives like a benevolent rock deity and turns the last 20 minutes of the film into a personal concert. She's playing Sophie's "grandmother," but truly she's just playing herself, and her sheer presence is applause-worthy.
Much like its predecessor, "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" is escapist fluff of the highest order — joyful, filled with beloved pop songs and incredibly bizarre. Go ahead and treat yourself to this raucous seaside summer confection, you deserve it.
'MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN'
Cast: Cher, Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgård, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material.