A shiny-bright jukebox musical with a heart of gold and a plot of pure polyester, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again works hard to be the feel-giddy movie experience of the summer.
And it mostly succeeds in its own glittery, aggressively winsome way — in part maybe because it doesn’t have much competition: In a season supposedly made for mass audiences, there’s hardly anything at the multiplex focused on the female half of the population, or even much romance at all that’s not served up as sort of obligatory side plot to the cinematic deluge of Ant Men and Infinity Wars.
Here We Go does fit the summer superhero mold in one respect; it’s basically an origin story, a sort of combination sequel-prequel to the 2008 blockbuster that sprang from the still-running 1999 musical, which in turn was built around the smash catalog of 1970s Swedish pop seraphs ABBA.
Amanda Seyfried is back again as Sophie, a little bit older and more prone to linen loungewear this time, and working hard to make her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), proud by relaunching her quaint Greek-island escape as a boutique luxury hotel. She still has her man, Sky (Dominic Cooper), even though he’s far away learning the business in New York, and three devoted fathers, all committed by love if not by confirmed DNA: tender-hearted architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Swedish swashbuckler Bill (Stellan Skarsgaard), and British banker Harry (Colin Firth).
What she still doesn’t fully know is how they all came to be contenders in the first film’s who’s-your-daddy sweepstakes. That’s where the clock flips back to 1979, and a young Donna (Lily James) about to graduate summa cum laude from Oxford; this being Mamma Mia, she’ll do it by ripping off her cap and gown to reveal a striped jumpsuit and stacked Bowie boots, pulling her two Dynamos bandmates to the podium, and tearing into “When I Kissed the Teacher.” (Sort of an odd choice for #MeToo times, though it’s softened some by switching the professor’s gender and having her played by veteran character actress Celia Imrie.)
Young Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) don’t know it’s also the Dynamos’ swan song; Donna wants to see the world, on her own. That means a whirlwind through Paris with a shy, bumbling Brit in a leather jacket named Harry (the excellently awkward Hugh Skinner, of Fleabag and Poldark); a hitched sailboat ride with Bill the randy blonde Swede (Josh Dylan), and a Mediterranean reverie with Sam (War Horse star Jeremy Irvine).
Also many, many musical interludes, though it may be better to let those unfold onscreen in their own greatest-hits-and-B-sides time. (Suffice to say there be Waterloos, Dancing Queens, and Super Troupers, too). It also has the great Julie Walters and Christine Baranski returning as the grown Rosie and Tanya, respectively, and Andy Garcia as the Hotel Bella Donna’s lothario manager Fernando Cienfuegos, a seemingly endless source of florid compliments and Panama hats.
The direction (by Best Exotic Marigold Hotel screenwriter Ol Parker) is almost relentlessly sunny, and the whole thing — even the exterior scenes, shot largely in Croatia — has the scrubbed-clean Technicolor brightness of a 1950s film set. What helps keep the movie from drifting into diabetic shock is British actress James, best known as a doll-faced Georgia waitress (in Baby Driver), a rebellious Lady (on Downton Abbey), and a literal princess (in 2015’s live-action Cinderella).
Here, she has the unenviable task of slipping into a role invented onscreen by Meryl Streep, but she wears it so lightly, and with so much tart, fizzy sweetness, the camera and the story follow. Her Donna charms nearly everyone: men, goats, unsmiling Greek grandmothers. (Seyfried is nice too, though she’s mostly left to fret on the sidelines or bear witness to Baranski’s and Walters’ loopy back and forth; Streep’s turn this time is little more than glorified cameo).
And then, ladies and several gentlemen, there’s Cher. If she didn’t already exist, she’d probably have to be invented for the finale, a living manifestation of pop-culture fantasy in a creamy white pantsuit, crooning “Fernando.” Her performance is a lot like the movie: winky, silly, simultaneously camp and sincere — and lit, in every last frame, like a dream. B