Back in November, I watched the original Mamma Mia! film for the first time for a #ThrowbackThursday column that basically everyone ignored (but you can read it, now, by clicking here). That was good timing as I didn’t even realize that this sequel was on the way, meaning my homework was already done for its release! It’s not often we are treated to an original sequel to a movie that was based on a musical that was based on a pop music catalog (referred to as a “jukebox musical”). This is actually probably the first time that we’ve ever gotten that. And people say there’s no originality in Hollywood.
In this follow-up, cleverly entitled Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Amanda Seyfried’s character of Sophie returns from the first film with the mission to reopen her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) hotel one year after Donna’s death. As the grand reopening draws near, and friends and family from Sophie and Donna’s lives converge, Sophie reflects on her mother’s legacy, giving the audience a glimpse into young Donna’s (Lily James) past and Sophie’s conception, all while Sophie questions whether she’s capable of following in her mother’s footsteps.
The film is uniquely half-prequel and half-sequel and while, aside from the structure, I wouldn’t say that the movie offers up anything new when compared to its predecessor, like that first film, what it does offer up is enjoyable and well-executed, despite being of a mostly-recycled nature. In some ways, however, the reflections of the themes and narrative of the first film are deliberate, as the story centers around the idea of legacy and the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. The parallels drawn between James’s/Streep’s Donna and Seyfried’s Sophie are calculated, yet organic and believable. Nothing here reinvents the wheel, but it does replace a tire with a strong and sturdy fresh one.
The cast is as strong and charming as ever and is the biggest appeal of the series for me. Lily James continues to win me over with each successive role, after – from my perspective – being horribly miscast as Cinderella in her breakout part. In Here We Go Again, she successfully conquers the challenge of delivering a performance that’s authentic to her own style while still being kissed by Streep’s mannerisms and inflections. Streep and Seyfried look very little alike, but that’s irrelevant due to James’s knack for getting all of the little things right. It’s a tricky prospect and it’s impressive to see such a young talent pull it off with this kind of dexterity. Seyfried – the best singer of the bunch – holds the entire film together, serving as the movie’s backbone and the bridge from the past to the present. James and Seyfried pack a mighty one-two punch without even sharing a single scene.
Besides the themes, another component of the film that must navigate some recycling is the music. After the runaway success of the first film, making a follow-up was essentially a no-brainer. But what can the filmmakers do when they used up all of the ABBA songs that people know in the first film? Well, just use those songs, again, right? And that’s what they do. Some of the featured tunes are new for this movie, but the biggies aren’t. Honestly, though, what other choice did they have? If the entire soundtrack was made up of the ABBA B-sides that only their most diehard fans know, it’s going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of most viewers. So, it’s a problem, but it’s a problem without a solution, making it hard to be overly critical of the choice to reuse the hits.
Something I’m not critical of is another thematic continuation from the first film, but one we actually get to see play out in this one, due to the flashback sequences. My favorite aspect of this film – as well as its predecessor, though I didn’t think to mention it in my #ThrowbackThursday column – is that Donna is never shamed for her lifestyle choices. In a culture where women are trained to be ashamed of themselves for having – or even wanting to have – sex, here, nobody bats an eye at Donna for having three one-night stands. It’s never presented as a character flaw and is instead represented as it should be: the choice of an adult to do as she pleases as long as no one is getting hurt. Women (and in many cases, men. But not as many cases.) are regularly looked down upon if they choose to live freely, independently, and for fun rather than according to the strict, imaginary regulations of a society that isn’t going to be affected by these women’s choices, but who deigns to attempt to enforce their own arbitrary and nonsensical judgment upon them, anyway. Not here. Here, Donna sleeps with three different guys, and that’s that. Not a big deal.
My biggest bone to pick is with the marketing department, who spoiled most of the big twists and reveals in the trailers, television spots, and even official synopsis for the film. The movie did well at the box office over the weekend, but, for example, I can’t help but think that keeping Cher’s glorified cameo a secret would increase the post-release buzz (and, therefore, the box office performance), with excited and surprised viewers walking out and telling their friends that they’ll never believe who shows up. Cher is the kind of added value element that would work well that way with the film’s target audience, especially considering how little screen time she actually has. On the flip side, by marketing her presence so heavily, the studio runs the risk of priming audiences for a Cher-heavy film, only to be disappointed when she only appears for ten or fifteen minutes.
It’s possible that I’m thinking too hard, though, and I’m the only one who truly cares about such things (I’m not, though. Maybe consciously, I am. But, deep down, I’m not.). The film will likely do well, anyway – though it has a way to go to reach the approximate profit point of $187.5 million worldwide. One way or another, for better or for worse, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again offers virtually no surprises (marketing saw to that. . . . Okay, I’ll leave it alone.). If you expect to like it, you probably will. If you don’t expect to like it, you probably won’t. The film is exactly as it appears to be. For me, I enjoyed it as much as I expected to – no more, no less. The songs were fun, the cast was great, and I was engaged from start to finish, but there’s not a lot of meat and some of the narrative elements exist solely to create an excuse to work another ABBA song into the party. If this sounds good to you, go for it. If not, there are plenty of other options out there.
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