“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” the perfectly titled sequel to “Mamma Mia!” (it opens 10 years to the week after the first film), kicks off on a bubbly high. It’s 1979, and Donna, the free-spirited expatriate-on-a-Greek-island innkeeper played by Meryl Streep, is now played, at the end of her Oxford undergraduate days, by Lily James, in honey-gold ringlets, with a smile that could light up several city blocks. She comes onstage to deliver a graduation speech, and instead tugs the gown off her shoulders to do an unexpectedly fiery rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher.”
Ten years ago, in “Mamma Mia!,” most of the actors approached singing ABBA songs as if they’d been given a free pass on karaoke night. Some belted, some crooned, some warbled, and even the great Streep kept declaiming the lyrics as if she thought every line of singing was supposed to be a line of acting. Then, of course, there was Pierce Brosnan, who sang “S.O.S.” sounding like a seal with a ping-pong ball stuck in his mouth.
Lily James transcends all that sloshed-emoting-at-the wedding tomfoolery. Standing there in her go-go space boots, joined by fellow Donna and the Dynamos members Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), she tears into “When I Kissed the Teacher” like a tiger, and though it’s a less-than-great ABBA song, the staging is more dynamic than anything in the first “Mamma Mia!” The number has propulsion and flair, which makes you hope that the film will be a sustained lyrical experience — not just a semi-irresistible pastiche but an honest-to-God musical to remember.
True confession: I’m a religious nut about ABBA, one who saw the Broadway production of “Mamma Mia!” three times, but I didn’t love the movie version of “Mamma Mia!” The cheeseball plot, which was like “Gilligan’s Island” recast as a romcom, was never designed to be anything but a delivery system for the incandescence of ABBA’s music. Yet it actually worked less well with major actors — Streep, Brosnan, etc. — demonstrating, in every line, what stick figures they were playing. (Also, the Broadway performers sang a lot better.) The movie was fun, in its way, but it was also an uneasy fusion of rapture and camp that clunked.
But now that there’s a “Mamma Mia!” sequel, it can be said with certainty that the ABBA musical is a form unto itself — a shamelessly innocent (or maybe just shameless) scrapbook pieced together out of the world’s most sublime ear candy, a story that sprawls in four directions at once (each subplot seems crafted by a different cookie cutter), an overdose of clowning by middle-aged actors who’ve been encouraged to take a fearless pride in what raffish physical specimens they’ve become, all held together by the transcendent classiness of Meryl Streep.
Streep is barely in the new movie, since Donna died the year before it starts. Yet she hovers over it in spirit and does eventually show up, at which point you will cry. Donna’s daughter, Sophie, is played once again by Amanda Seyfried, who has grown from an ingénue with goldfish eyes into a beautifully tough and sculpted presence (think vintage Sarah Jessica Parker), and she sings a cross-continental duet with Sky (Dominic Cooper), her true love, after he announces that he’s going to leave her to work in the New York hotel business. As these two croon “One of Us” (“One of us is lonely…”), the movie is barely 10 minutes old, and already you can feel your heart breaking. That’s the ABBA effect, but it’s also a testament to how keenly the writer-director, Ol Parker, lays out the song’s wistful rapture.
Sophie, who is honoring her mother by relaunching her inn as the Bella Donna Hotel, can barely make a move without casting a sadly adoring glance back at Donna and all that she represents: the soul of women who are free and strong and passionate, and therefore melting and yearning and gorgeously melancholy. That’s the holy spirit of ABBA, and in “Here We Go Again” that spirit infuses you with a swooning musical high, even if the giddy soap-opera convolutions take up most of the space.
The movie cuts back and forth between Sophie planning her hotel relaunch party — can she weather a heavy rainstorm? will she get back together with Sky? will all three of her dads show up? — and James’ Donna, 40 years before, finding her way to that Greek island and spinning through the trio of romantic entanglements we first heard about in “Mamma Mia!” “Here We Go Again” is another kitsch patchwork; it’s as if you were watching the CliffsNotes to an old studio weeper that happened to be carried along by some of the most luscious pop songs ever recorded. Yet the feeling comes through, especially at the end — a love poem to the primal bond of mothers and daughters.
Each of the actors playing Donna’s young suitors is just callowly sexy enough to be appealing. First she meets Harry (the Colin Firth character), played by Hugh Skinner as the world’s most polite preppie punk, in a Johnny Rotten T-shirt and too-small leather jacket. They do an exuberant duet on “Waterloo,” and then it’s on to her adventure with Bill (the Stellan Skarsgård character), played by Josh Dylan as a hunky blond sailor who agrees to ferry her to the island. The young Pierce Brosnan is played by Jeremy Irvine, who squints with enough purpose to let us know that he’s Donna’s true love.
“Here We Go Again” uses a few of the same songs that “Mamma Mia!” did, such as the title number and a virtual restaging of “Dancing Queen,” with a chorus running through the woods and winding up on that same beach, where they perform what amounts to a slightly less awkward version of a group dance number out of a ’70s TV variety show. Yet since ABBA’s greatest hits were basically strip-mined for the first film, most of the songs here are less high-profile ABBA gems, and that means that the movie conjures a more reflective, downbeat mood.
That’s not a bad thing. Several of the numbers soar, like “Andante, Andante” (which could be the film’s slow-love anthem) or “Angel Eyes,” led by Sophie as a warning against men who are too seductive to be true. One of ABBA’s greatest songs, “The Name of the Game,” was dropped from the first film and appears here, though I wish the movie went with its interlocking emotions more; the number starts off well but turns into a piece of orange-picking slapstick.
And then, of course, there’s the walking pop royalty that is Cher. She shows up near the end, playing Sophie’s grandmother (though she looks more like Lady Gaga’s aunt), and if there’s any single testament here to the “Mamma Mia!” aesthetic, it’s the way that Cher’s performance of “Fernando” is hung on a story hook so contrived that it actually contributes to the song’s passion. The film barely pretends that there’s a reason for it to be there. The reason is: We want to see Cher sing “Fernando.” When she does, my my, how can you resist her?