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Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: We really tried to make it out, we wish we understood

Amanda Seyfriend and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again".

Photo Credit: Jonathan Prime

  • Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
  • Directed by Ol Parker
  • Written by Ol Parker, Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson
  • Starring Amanda Seyfried and Lily James
  • Classification PG; 114 minutes

rating

We’re several scenes and one unconvincing production number into Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again when the infectiously joyful Lily James and the gloriously silly Hugh Skinner start dancing around a Parisian restaurant to the ABBA song Waterloo. Breathe a sigh of relief; this even-more bizarre sequel to an already bizarre original (based on the 1999 jukebox musical) is going to be ridiculous, of course. But fun, too.

If there was any doubt, it’s that the script is flimsy, and, after the success of the first Mamma Mia! movie in 2008, the creative team is now reaching deep into the ABBA back catalogue. That first number featured a graduating class at Oxford singing When I Kissed the Teacher, making a weak narrative link to some of the Swedish pop band’s more painfully dated lyrics.

The key to the franchise is that Mamma Mia! never takes itself seriously: This time out, the joy is giddy but the sentiments are cloying; the musical scenes are mainly delightful, but quieter moments often fall flat. After we are rid of the pesky Oxford grads, director Ol Parker proves to do his best work on the production numbers – the bigger, the better. His direction is swift and imaginative, from a scene where he cleverly reinvigorates the device of separated lovers appearing on a split screen to lavish, pull-out-all-stops dance numbers for Angel Eyes and reprises (from the first movie) of the inevitable Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia.

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His dialogue, on the other hand, is painfully contrived in a screenplay he wrote using a largely nonsensical story concocted with veteran Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Mamma Mia’s original writer Catherine Johnson. (If you are the kind of person who would question whether, in 1980, a Greek priest on a small island would agree to baptize a foreign woman’s illegitimate child, then you had best stay away from Mamma Mia!) A decade after its predecessor, neither the narrative nor the chronology of the sequel can bear any more examining than the cast’s crow’s feet, but Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is back on the picturesque (and fictional) Greek island of Kalokairi, turning her mother’s bed-and-breakfast into a luxury hotel as a tribute to the dearly departed Donna.

Yes, Meryl Streep has left the building and only appears in a cameo at the finale; her energy is much missed. Instead, we get Cher as Sophie’s supposed grandmother, and you have to at least admire the chutzpah – and laugh happily as the script finds an excuse for her to break into Fernando (the lady looks as though she’s mistaken a taxidermist for a plastic surgeon).

That funny segue to Fernando produces an effect that was central to the first movie but is less powerful here as the songs get more obscure: the delicious tingle when the audience recognizes which ABBA tune the writers are cueing up next. Instead, we get a different treat, playing spot-the-boyfriend as we pick out younger versions of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard from amongst Skinner, Jeremy Irvine and Josh Dylan.

The young cast playing a flashback story about Donna’s arrival in Greece is the dramatic heart of the project, with particularly strong leadership from James. The plot of both movies turns on the notion that Donna can’t identify Sophie’s father among her three lovers, and James’s attractive version of the young Donna successfully elevates the carefree backpacker’s promiscuity into a sympathetic joie de vivre.

In the present, the increasingly creaky oldsters are mainly amusing. Many of us would happily watch Firth tie himself to a chair and fall into the drink any day of the week, and Christine Baranski and Julie Walters also do funny work as Donna’s old roommates.

The earnest Seyfried, on the other hand, is saddled with laying out an emotionally implausible storyline and speaking some of Parker’s worst dialogue, written for the movie’s quieter scenes. She doesn’t pull it off, and the film often drags when it returns to the present, where she is trying to organize the grand opening of the hotel despite the absence of two of her three fathers and a crippling storm.

Thankfully, a shipload of Greek villagers arrives, everyone starts singing Dancing Queen, and, one more time, all is well on Kalokairi.

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