For anyone who’s sick of depressing headlines, superhero sagas or action movies, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” (MM2) is the perfect antidote. It’s a frothy concoction of infectious ABBA music, beautiful scenes of happy people dancing on a sun-drenched Greek island and lots of cute cameos from visitors and residents of the island. There’s also a tear or two to keep everything in balance.
“MM2” is both a prequel and a sequel to the original “Mamma Mia” (2008). In the sequel section, set five years after the first movie, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has been renovating her mother’s old farmhouse. She’s been ably assisted by her supportive stepfather Sam (Pierce Brosnan), who may or may not be her biological father, and her suave manager Fernando (song cue alert!), played with great charm and sly humor by Andy Garcia.
While the grand reopening of Hotel Bella Donna is a great excuse to get the old gang together again, it’s also a melancholy occasion. Donna has died a year before the story starts, although Meryl Streep magically returns to sing one final song.
The prequel section kicks off at Donna’s college graduation ceremony. Young Donna (an excellent Lily James) heads off to Europe and winds up living in a decrepit farmhouse on the aforementioned Greek island. With her friends and back-up singers Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davis), Donna discovers that this is a magical island where everyone knows the lyrics and dance moves for every ABBA song.
Along the way, Donna also has brief but passionate affairs with three young men: Sam (Jeremy Levine), Harry (Josh Dylan) and Bill (Hugh Skinner). After the men leave, Donna discovers she’s pregnant, although she is unsure which man in the baby’s father.
In crafting a sequel to the surprise hit “Mamma Mia,” writer/director Ol Parker (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) had to tackle the problem faced the creator of any jukebox musical: how do you cram well-known songs into a new plot?
For the most part, Parker succeeds admirably. Some of ABBA’s lyrics are uncomfortable in their new surroundings and the plot is rather ramshackle. But Parker and choreographer Anthony Van Laast strike cinematic gold with “When I Kissed the Teacher” which becomes Donna’s rebellious valedictory address; “Andante, Andante,” which becomes Donna’s audition song; “One of Us,” an exquisitely staged duet for Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper); and, “Waterloo,” a high-energy ensemble number set in the fancy French restaurant where Donna and Bill have their first and only date.
Parker also weaves together the two plotlines with ease and elegance. He sculpts delicate narrative parallels between the adventures of Sophie and young Donna and the action moves smoothly and cleanly from past to present. Editor Peter Lambert and cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman also draw strong visual parallels between the two timelines and lovely images of young Donna frequently serve as a visual backdrop for Sophie’s songs.
Parker generally gets strong performances from his mostly all-star cast. Cher joins the cast as Sophie’s estranged grandmother Ruby and nearly steals the show. Her entrance into the party is magnificent and her wistful duet with Andy Garcia is spectacular.
Christine Baranski and Julie Waters return as Donna’s buddies Tanya and Rosie and make the most out of their minimal screen time. Their performances are nicely echoed by Wynn and Davies who have great fun as Young Tanya and Young Rosie. Likewise, both James and Seyfried offer dynamite performances which are enhanced by their almost uncanny resemblance to each other.
Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård (Harry) and Colin Firth (Bill) all slip easily into their old roles, and Bronson slips much more easily into his music this time. His quiet reprise of “SOS” as a eulogy for Donna is quite touching, one of the emotional highlights of the movie.
“Mamma Mia” is a great summer treat. With lively music, fun choreography, stunning scenery and entertaining performances by popular actors in familiar roles, the musical is a pleasure you don’t need to feel too guilty about. Just don’t question the plot too much, or you might realize it doesn’t match up with the backstories of the first.
And don’t leave during the credits. The movie ends with a delight Easter egg.