My family all went off to see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again a couple of weeks ago but they wouldn’t let me go with them. Their fear was that I would totally ruin their enjoyment of the film by being overly critical on the way home. To be fair I do do this, most recently it was with The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society.
This problem is that I have made absolutely no secret of how much I despise the first Mamma Mia! Seriously I will not shut up about it. Elsewhere on the blog I have used it as an example of how badly theatre to screen adaptations can go when no consideration is given for the differences between the two mediums (this was in my review of Little Shop of Horrors) and when in my write up of Silver Linings Playbook I was discussing Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element I said he was so bad that he made Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! look like Daniel Day Lewis (which was a little unfair but, oh my God, Brosnan’s singing is painful). While musing on Dreamgirls I really went off on one about how awful Mamma Mia! was, describing it as the worst kind of lazy film making, stringing together some songs that already existed around the flimsiest of story lines (not even doing that itself but lifting it wholesale from the stage show) and casting people that couldn’t sing, IN A MUSICAL! It doesn’t stop there though, it goes beyond my own website. I actually had a short letter published in Empire Magazine that said something along the lines of ‘I cannot believe that Mamma Mia! made more money at the UK box office than Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman sequel The Dark Knight. I have not been this embarrassed to be British since Mr. Blobby got to number one in the music charts.’
You can see why my wife and kids were worried that I might rain on their parade.
For the record my nearest and dearest, as they expected, all enjoyed Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and now that I have caught up with the film myself I have to say that once again, as expected, I didn’t. My feeling isn’t one of hatred this time though and on occasion the movie may even have raised a smile. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is certainly better than Mamma Mia and with number two I find myself able to understand why lots of other people think it is fun.
As with its predecessor, this film is tonally all over the place like realism mixed with panto, and those ABBA tunes are still painfully shoehorned in. The story, which is slightly better having been written for cinema, shows Meryl Streep’s daughter from the first movie preparing to finally open the family hotel on Kalokairi while flashing back to when Streep’s Donna first arrived on the island. Interestingly Meryl didn’t seem able or keen to spend much time on set this time with Lily James playing her most of the time as a young woman. We already know the narrative beats here as most of what goes on is described in the first film. The challenge was always going to be rounding out the tale of how she ending up getting pregnant without knowing which one of three men was the father without making her look overly promiscuous and I’m not sure they have succeeded. There isn’t much detail added to the backstory and curiously it would have been better if they had just made her a little libidinous. As it is she seems to have almost accidentally slept with two of the guys, as if she was absentmindedly wearing sandals in the rain.
This said Lily James is one of the best things about this film with her performances of the songs really lifting things. The musical set ups do remain forced and occasionally strange. It initially seemed that the track ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ was playing out as a confession of a horribly inappropriate affair Donna had had with one of her professors but I realised I was reading too much into it. Equally discomforting though is when they sing ‘Waterloo’. Here a young version of Colin Firth’s Harry is basically not taking no for an answer when he wants to have sex with Donna and in this context her singing ‘I couldn’t escape if I wanted to’ is deeply unsettling. Fortunately though James gives it everything every time she sings and these moments work purely because of her.
The skills of the other singers in the movie are varied. Amanda Siegfried has both a nice voice and strong screen presence but her early duet with Dominic Cooper is oddly lacklustre. Pierce Brosnan gets to reprise ‘SOS’ following his horrendous rendition of this tune in the first film but this time it’s okay and actually generates some genuine pathos. Then at the end the film plays it strongest card and blows the whole thing. This is a musical series seemingly at peace with its less than exemplary singing but then Cher turns up and humiliates every other person in the room. Believe me, the absolute last thing they should have done was bring a proper pop star into this; she just makes everyone else sound terrible. As an audience we had got used to the passable warbling then a true legend arrives and shames all of us; them for their singing and us for accepting their singing. There is an obligatory ensemble song over the closing credits and the whole cast must be mortified watching it back. All of Cher’s verses must be like a knife to their hearts. Next to her, even the best of them sound like raspy kittens mewing next to the roar of a mighty lioness.
Yet with all of this, with its awful script, it’s often corny acting and its laboured cliche, I did find it marginally endearing. One of my feet may actually have at tapped along at one point. Unsophisticated and underwritten as the whole movie is, it is undeniably well intentioned and even if I didn’t properly connect with it, I glad that some people have. I didn’t find it in the slightest bit emotionally engaging; the scene with the ghost was frankly strange, but in the end it was harmless. When all is said and done this is one sequel that is not purely about the money, money, money.
Coming from me, for this film, that was a glowing review.