10 years ago, a smash Broadway hit featuring the music of ABBA burst onto the big screen in Mamma Mia! Much to the surprise of many critics, the film kept a hypnotic hold on theater audiences well into the following year, even spawning a popular sing-along version. Now, a sequel that many doubted was even possible picks up the tale 10 years after the original story sailed into the sunset.
In the follow-up, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) must carry on after the loss of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep). Their shared dream was to open a hotel on the site of their beloved Greek island home. Sophie shoulders the burden of the grand opening mostly on her own as her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is off getting a formal education in the hospitality industry. As the big day approaches, one disaster after another threatens to ruin all that she’s worked so hard to accomplish. It’s then that Donna’s oldest friends, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), sail back into port to save the day. The pair give Sophie much-needed support and a better understanding of the woman whom all of them loved so dearly.
What a difference a decade makes. Let me start by saying that I love the original, so much so that I named it my film of the year in 2008. Just thinking of it makes my cheeks ache from the memory of smiling through its entire length. The sequel is a different experience altogether.
The core distinction is simple: The music of the original drives the plot. The plot of the sequel drives the music. The original featured 24 A-list songs packed into 109 minutes, whereas the sequel has 18 mainly B-list songs spread over its 114 minutes. The energy of the former is relentless. You get just enough time to grab your breath before you’re swallowed up in the embrace of the next number. The energy of the latter feels tepid by comparison. The original film opens with a breathtaking night shot set to the slow, entrancing lyrics of “I Have a Dream.” Its words and imagery carry us, oh so carefully, into a story that invites us to bask in its resplendent silliness, and we gladly lap it up. The first scene of the sequel shocks your system as if jumping into a Nordic lake, naked, in the middle of a winter blizzard. It’s awkward, stark and creates a disconnect that we struggle the rest of the film to overcome.
The story unfolds in two parallel paths — Sophie’s current-day challenges intermixed with Donna’s coming-of-age journey. Neither benefits from the split. It’s too long where it should be short and too short where it should be longer. Lily James as the younger Donna is the standout of the flashback sequences. Her three young beaus (playing the younger versions of Sophie’s “dads”) are nearly interchangeable and entirely forgettable. Few of the flashback sequences are worthy of the time that they hungrily devour. Remember the tantalizing pages of Donna’s steamy diary in the original film? Dot, dot, dot? No such magic materializes here. Our own imaginations created a much richer backstory. Consider what we know about Donna and Harry “Headbanger” (Colin Firth). The first film conveys their romance through the melodic lyrics of “Our Last Summer:” “Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain. Our last summer. Memories that remain.” Those 14 words paint a more lavish picture than several flashback scenes of the sequel. Donna and Harry are pasted into Paris with an obligatory shot of the Eiffel Tower, but little else, including zero hints of how he earned his nickname.
The current day action also suffers for lack of magnetism. ABBA’s biggest hits are reduced to subtle instrumentals playing lazily in the background. All four of the men in Sophie’s life are given short shrift. Pierce Brosnan as Sophie’s stepfather Sam and Donna’s live-in widower blows in and out like a short summer breeze. Firth and Stellan Skarsgård as Bill barely see the light of day. Sophie’s own husband gets an ominous subplot that resolves effortlessly with nary a mention. Even the beautiful island, so dominant in the original, seems muted and dull.
And then God said, “Let there be Baranski and Walters.” Every time that they show up, the film’s energy meter leaps off the scale. They get nearly all of the best lines, some of which are unforgettable. They’re just not in the film enough.
When we reach the final act, we’re completely unprepared for the volcanic crescendo that’s about to make us rethink the entire film. It all starts with the cavalry-like arrival of Cher as Sophie’s long-absent grandmother, parodying her own persona. Her entrance begins a bit off-putting, but all that changes the moment that she hits the first note of her first of two songs. Her voice reminds us instantly that there’s talent and then there’s TALENT. From there to the final frame, we get one touching moment after another. It all culminates in the expected, but adorable, encore played over the final credits. It may not live up to the original, but fans will find enough to make it worth the boat ride.