FilmSpace: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Film critic Scott Wilson was the first in line and took a chance on the sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia! 

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – ★★★★☆

My my. It’s easy to be sniffy and dismiss the Mamma Mia! films as cheesy and embarrassing nonsense. Your dad at a 50th in a denim jacket is cooler than Pierce Brosnan here, and the Mediterranean sun on the film’s Greek island is outshone by the gleaming teeth from unshakeable smiles on celebrities singing Abba songs. 

It led to a kind of ironic enjoyment of the first film. Whether it was quietly admitting Mamma Mia! was a guilty pleasure (a terrible phrase that shames people for enjoying things), or there was something edgy about insincerely exaggerating that film’s delights, those who should know better kept it at arm’s length, determined not to be seen having any fun whatsoever while covertly tapping their foot under the table.

Thankfully times have changed, and openly embracing fun is preferable to everything else going on in the world right now. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – a title so good it justifies the sequel in itself – isn’t just more of the same. In fact, it’s a better film all round, its sequel-and-prequel structure working surprisingly well, while tonally it is far more aware of just how much fun a film like this can be.

Director Ol Parker has put together a film that has good times aplenty, but also a depth and a sincere emotional core that will resonate particularly for those close with their parents.

Picking up five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie is preparing to reopen her late mother’s hotel. Donna’s death happens between films but hangs over Sophie and Pierce Brosnan’s Sam, now a widow. It hangs over the film, too, since the absence of Meryl Streep from the main plot was always going to be noticeable. 

While Sophie is working to make her mum proud, the film jumps back in time to tell Donna’s story, including how she arrived on the island and how it is we are not entirely sure who Sophie’s dad is.

Young Donna is played by Lily James, who is having quite the 2018 after Darkest Hour and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She’s an unfamiliar face in the series, yet quickly becomes the focal point – she is Donna, and we follow her from graduation to Paris to Greece, meeting Sam, Bill, and Harry along the way. The film does miss Streep, but James’s star keeps on rising, and here she’s all-singing, all-dancing, and confirms she is a reliably magnetic screen presence.

In its treatment of the younger Donna, the film asserts itself as having a healthy view of young female sexuality. It’s an often light-hearted and comical film, but there are no jokes made at her expense after a quick succession of passionate encounters. It’s not that kind of mean-spirited film, choosing to celebrate her youthful liberation instead. Freed from the path of education that guides her into early adulthood, she is able to do what (and who) she wants with a maturity to make those decisions and with no one – not in-film or the film itself – pointing an accusatory finger. 

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It means the film knows what it’s doing, more than many want to give something like an Abba musical sequel credit for. My Love, My Life heralds a touching scene between mother and daughter that I know personally has been the standout moment for some, to the extent they called Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again a sad film. It is absolutely heartfelt, and not by accident. Director Ol Parker has put together a film that has good times aplenty, but also a depth and a sincere emotional core that will resonate particularly for those close with their parents.

I am yet to be convinced that any jukebox musical manages to seamlessly work its songs into the narrative, but to complain of that here would be humbug. For every One of Us that fits the movie’s mood at that moment, there’s a Waterloo that’s just an excuse to sing Waterloo. When the film really goes for it with shoehorning songs in – Andy García’s Cienfuegos’s first name reveal in particular – it’s with a knowing wink and a laugh, forgiven because the songs are just that good.

And that’s why Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again really works. I think Abba are the best thing to have ever happened to popular music, and their songs are strong enough to carry a film on their own merit. Ol Parker uses the familiar tunes and emotional punches to actually do something with them, curating them the same way artists do with albums so that there’s flow and momentum throughout. Most of the film is spent laughing and smiling, so when My Love, My Life comes along, it works as well as it does because of how the whole film is structured.

No one should be surprised that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is as good as it is. The songs speak for themselves, but this is a genuine and wonderful film, with a game cast telling a story that has meat on its bones. Like others, I will be going again, and expect to fall in love with it more, cry more, and savour that feeling only cinema can provide as a solace, a complete antithesis, to the nastiness going on in the world. Thank you for the music.