"MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN" — 2½ stars — Lily James, Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Jeremy Irvine, __Pierce Brosnan; PG-13 (some suggestive material); in general release__
It's safe to say when "Mamma Mia!" came out 10 years ago, most people weren't seeing it for the story. They were going for the long string of ABBA hits that transformed the movie into one big karaoke fest.
In that first film, Meryl Streep and Co. belted those hits as if their lives depended on it, but it was Pierce Brosnan who really got into the spirit of things for better or worse (If you saw his "SOS" duet with Streep then you know it was for worse). "Mamma Mia!" earned Brosnan a Golden Raspberry Award for worst supporting actor, but it turns out he didn't really care because he just enjoys singing ABBA like all the rest of the fans out there.
But Brosnan's come a long way. He does stick mostly to group numbers, but he gets a brief moment of redemption in this sequel, putting a surprisingly touching spin on "SOS." While Brosnan certainly had the greatest need for improvement, the singing from all cast members in this sequel is significantly better than the original. Instead of having a singing-karaoke-with-friends feel, the music in this sequel is more nuanced because there's a deeper storyline at play.
The plot of "Mamma Mia!" didn't offer much: On the Greek island Kalokairi, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) invites three men from her mother Donna's (Streep) past to her wedding with the hopes that one of them would turn out to be her father and walk her down the aisle. That was pretty much it. But the thin storyline allowed the music to do the talking, delivering entertaining hit after hit.
We get a few of these same hits in director and screenwriter Ol Parker's "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" — the whole island seems to get in on the "Dancing Queen" action, and of course, you can't have this movie without the title song — but we're also given some lesser-known ABBA songs such as "Angel Eyes" and "Andante, Andante" as the movie shifts back and forth between two narrative threads.
In the present day, we see Sophie, played once again by Seyfried, in Kalokairi preparing for the grand opening of the restored hotel Bella Donna — the very hotel that lured her mother, Donna, to stay on the island in the first place. We also see a young Donna, a 1979 Oxford graduate played by Lily James, ready to explore the world through a journey that will eventually take her to the Greek island.
Naturally, the Oxford graduation ceremony is a setup for the ABBA song "When I Kissed the Teacher," and when the ceremony seamlessly transforms into a bike riding/dance party, you know the movie isn't trying to be taken seriously. (If you look closely during this opening scene, you'll notice a cameo from ABBA's own Bjorn Ulvaeus.)
But for all the lighthearted fun, there's some moving moments as we see young Donna's journey alongside Sophie's in the present day, and watch Donna's backstory as she meets and falls in love with the three men that were the focus of the first film. Just like the first film, "Here We Go Again's" PG-13 rating comes primarily from sexually suggestive material, although there's less of it here than in the first film.
We also get less of Streep in this movie than expected — and Streep was by far the best part of the first film. But James shines as a young Donna and keeps this movie afloat with great singing and charm. And then there's Cher, who plays Donna's self-absorbed mother and comes staggering in near the movie's end looking like Lady Gaga and belting out "Fernando."
And somehow, it just feels right.
To be clear, "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" is still just an excuse to sing along to those catchy ABBA tunes, but there's an emotional depth that separates it from the original film and makes it more worth the while.
"Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again" is rated PG-13 for some suggestive material; running time: 114 minutes.