Sequels are a tricky endeavor. They are usually spearheaded from a fiscal standpoint, instead of a creative interest. Studio execs see dollar signs when a film does well and want to make it happen again. The problem is when the entire cast can’t be wrangled back. The void is felt when a supporting character doesn’t return, but it’s impossible to miss when one of the leads don’t. “Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again” attempts to make lightning strike twice, but barely causes a rumble.
Not only does writer-director Ol Parker need to work around the absence of the original film’s central character, but to add insult to injury, that character is played by none other than Meryl Streep! The actress served as the gravitational pull for the rest of the cast, but she could only be convinced to appear for a quick cameo at the end of the sequel.
Attempting to get around this, Parker has created a sequel/prequel hybrid. It follows Donna (Streep’s character, now played by Lily James) as she graduates college and embarks on the next chapter of her life, and creates memories. En route to Greece, she runs into three men – Harry, Bill, and Sam, who audiences previously met as the potential baby daddies to her daughter, Sophie. In near present day (2005), Sophie is getting ready to open a hotel in honor of her mother and is suffering from self-doubt and a broken heart.
While they never mention how it happens, Donna’s death hangs over the film and characters like a low hanging fog. It hampers the light, fizzy mood of the first film. Even in the flashbacks, Donna is dealing with heartbreak and trying to find her own path in the world. Neither of these themes lend to many laughs, though there are a few scattered throughout.
There’s not really much to connect the two timelines, except for a last reel plot twist that has already been revealed in the trailers. But Parker doesn’t bother trying to tie the flashbacks to the present through a diary or found mementos.
The saving grace of the sequel is the addition of Cher. She doesn’t show up until the final moments, but she adds a certain level of levity that had been missing from this version. Christine Baranski, also a welcome sight, and Julie Walters do their best, but due to the dual timelines, they aren’t given as much screen time. However, the casting of Baranski’s young counterpart is uncanny. Jessica Keenan Wynn not only has nailed being Baranski’s doppelgänger, but she seems almost possessed by the older actress.
The original “Mamma Mia!” scoured the entire ABBA catalog for the most popular – and relevant – songs to include. Going back to the well a second time offers diminishing returns, with “Here We Go Again” relying on mostly mid-tempo songs that have less recognition to the casual listener. The filmmakers do wisely to reuse ABBA’s most universally known songs, “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia.”
Parker has delivered a better completed product, technically, but it’s just not as fun as the original. His filmmaking abilities are more honed, versus that of Phyllida Lloyd, who was making her feature debut with the first film. It’s slightly messy, but made up for it with the cast’s chemistry and how much fun everyone seemed to be having making it. This time around, the cast is separated for so much of the film that chemistry isn’t featured as much.
To be honest, there’s really no reason – other than money – that “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” needs to exist. The remaining cast members attempt to rekindle the magic, but the script isn’t keen to focus the happy nature of the original. Unless you’re a diehard ABBA fan, do yourself a favor and just watch the original.