By the time Mamma Mia! debuted in movie theaters in 2008, the stage show on which it’s based was already an international pop-culture phenomenon, with resident productions on Broadway, London’s West End and the Las Vegas Strip, and touring productions across the United States and around the world. It was pretty much the definition of a sure thing, and the movie’s producers imported the creative team from the stage show (writer Catherine Johnson, director Phyllida Lloyd) to guide a cast of questionably qualified movie stars through the motions of translating the ABBA-based musical to the screen.
A decade later, Mamma Mia! is nearly as popular as ever on stage, and the movie still has its dedicated fan base, although Pierce Brosnan’s singing voice remains a source of considerable trauma. But there’s no stage production to mine for a sequel, so Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is an original screen creation, with the reins handed over to an experienced filmmaker, writer-director Ol Parker. The result is a movie that is a bit more cinematically inventive but just as dramatically inert and musically flavorless, with even less of a plot and no narrative justification for revisiting these particular characters in this particular setting.
It’s also missing the original’s main star, Meryl Streep, who despite her strong presence in the marketing materials only shows up for a few minutes at the very end. In the first movie, Streep played Donna Sheridan, proprietor of a suspiciously empty boutique hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi, where her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) was about to get married. Sophie, who grew up not knowing who her father was, reached out to three men she suspected might be her dad (played by Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård), all of whom converged on Kalokairi to attend Sophie’s wedding and butcher some ABBA songs.
The plot to Mamma Mia! is pretty incoherent, jumping through various hoops to incorporate songs that weren’t written with any kind of narrative in mind. But at least it has a goal and some conflict, which is more than can be said for Here We Go Again. The sequel picks up five years later, when Donna has died of some unspecified cause, and Sophie is running the still suspiciously empty hotel with the help of disconcertingly sultry manager Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia). She’s renovated the place and is planning a grand opening, with her three potential dads, plus her mom’s best friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).
Only half the movie is about Sophie’s mild inconveniences in reopening the hotel, though; the other half is a laborious flashback to when young Donna (Lily James) first came to Kalokairi, met the three men who may have fathered Sophie, and fell in love with the beautiful island she then made her home. James is charming and effervescent, and she has a better singing voice than many of her co-stars, but young Donna’s storyline is pretty much a line-for-line dramatization of exposition from the first movie, without any rewarding additions, and James has no chemistry with the three actors (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan) who play the younger versions of Sophie’s potential dads.
Musically, Here We Go Again is mostly left with ABBA scraps, despite recycling several of the most memorable songs from the previous movie, and Parker’s screenplay has to stretch pretty clumsily to fit in some of the musical numbers (young Donna and one of her suitors end up at a Napoleon-themed restaurant in Paris to justify singing “Waterloo”). Parker’s most successful previous work is as the writer of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, and with its meandering pace, limp story and dull romances for aging characters, Here We Go Again sometimes feels like The Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Cher shows up near the end as Sophie’s grandmother (never mind that the character was declared deceased in the previous movie), and as the only person in the cast with an actual singing career, she naturally does a great job with “Fernando.” But one engaging performance of one catchy song isn’t enough to carry a two-hour movie; best to hold out for Cher’s forthcoming album of ABBA covers instead.