MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN Review: Style Over Substance, Enthusiasm Over Style

The sequel to the hit musical is a better film that most fans will still like less.

The original Mamma Mia! is a testament to just how far a film can go just based on a killer premise. To the film's fans, it doesn't matter that it's sloppily directed, it's lazily choreographed, it's poorly staged, or that half the cast can't sing (all apologies to Pierce Brosnan); the appeal of the thing is merely to see the greatest hits of ABBA transmogrified into a musical format in a bright and sunny island locale with a bunch of nominally attractive celebrities carrying you through to the finish line. It's a technically bad film that achieved popularity not in spite of its flaws but because its flaws don't actually matter in light of how appealing the very idea of an ABBA jukebox musical is. This makes the sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, an appropriately pointless revisitation to the concept, though very marketable as a nostalgic reminder that the first film exists. But somewhere along the way Here We Go Again ends up being a film more competently constructed than its forebear but is largely missing the key elements that would have made it as beloved.

Here We Go Again doesn't quite have the gumption to commit fully to either being a sequel or prequel, so we get a bit of both. The present-day storyline finds Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) trying to reopen the villa previously run by her now-deceased mother Donna (Meryl Streep), preparing for a grand party to draw in rich new customers but ultimately serving as an excuse to reunite the players from the previous film. Running in parallel are flashbacks to Donna's youth wherein she's portrayed by Lily James, showing the story of how she met her three lovers from the previous film, with Jeremy Irvine filling Brosnan's shoes, Hugh Skinner acting as a young Colin Firth, and Josh Dylan doing a passable Stellan Skarsgård impression. The prequel storyline is the more interesting of the two, and thankfully it's the focus of the majority of the musical numbers, relying on the superior singing talents of the younger cast – sorry again, Pierce Brosnan – though the cross-cutting between the two time periods is clumsy and serves only to draw a very weak parallel between Sophie's and Donna's young adulthood that acts as the crux of the film's semblance of an arc.

But if the success of Mamma Mia! is any indication, people aren't here for plot or character growth, so how does Here We Go Again fare as a compilation of musical setpieces? Not too bad actually! Unlike the first film, actual effort seems to have been put into staging engaging spectacle, complete with dynamic camera movement, songs that play to the strengths of those singing them, and dance choreography that is energetic and coordinated, though it does slow down noticeably when the older actors get their spotlight moments. (Pierce, I swear, I'm trying to be nice here.) It isn't anything to write home about, but it was enough to cause me to sit up and take notice that they were actually trying this time.

Unfortunately, this competence just doesn't feel like it's serving the right music. The problem with making a musical based on the hits of one band is that should you choose to make a sequel, all those hits have been used up, leaving only lesser-known songs to fill the gaps. Here We Go Again does revisit staples like "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen," but the biggest songs otherwise are probably "Fernando" and "Waterloo," with the majority of the songs being considerably more downbeat than the ones ABBA is most known for.

This puts Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again in this bizarrely awkward position of being musically inferior to the original while being a better overall film, and the priorities of most filmgoers are going to lie with the music. The original was already pretty slight, and this is even more so, meaning that most audiences that seek it out are probably going to have fun with it, but that increased effort isn't going to fix the fundamental problem of not having the same compelling soundtrack that drove the original film's popularity. But for whatever it's worth to those who want to revisit these characters, the returning cast seems to be having a pretty good time collecting an easy paycheck. Good for you, Pierce Brosnan.