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"Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again" is a Fun Musical and Showcase for the Wonderful Lily James: Review

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Film Review: Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is the sequel to the 2008 film Mamma Mia, which was based on the stage musical of the same name, which itself was based on the songs of ABBA. If it seems like some of the fun would be lost with each additional iteration,  Here We Go Again proves otherwise. As unnecessary as it may be, the sequel is an exceptionally fun time at the movies.

Following the Godfather Part II template, Here We Go Again is actually half-sequel, half-prequel, with a continuation of the first movie's plot interwoven with flashbacks depicting how Donna met each of her daughter's potential fathers and how she came to inexplicably live on a gorgeous Greek island, which was set up in the first film. Being the second musical to exclusively feature the music of ABBA, Here We Go Again faces the inevitable challenge of the first movie having done nearly all of the Swedish group's best and most well-known songs. A number of them are trotted out again ("Dancing Queen", "Super Trouper", and the title song included), while some of the other songs are strenuously shoehorned into the plot (like "Waterloo", "When I Kissed the Teacher", and "Fernando"). For those numbers, it almost becomes necessary to enjoy them for their spirit, detached from the lyrics. Thankfully, the infectious pop spirit of the music carries over into the bright, colorful, and occasionally sentimental film.

Although the cast boasts names such as Meryl Streep and Cher, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again belongs squarely to Lily James. The former Downton Abbey-actress plays the younger version of Streep's character in flashbacks and delivers comfortably the best performance in either Mamma Mia movie. She attacks the role with full-throated gusto and never loses sight of the character amid the chaotic singing and dancing - which is no easy task considering in her very first scene she's asked to sing "When I Kissed the Teacher" as her valedictorian speech (!). James's assured, effervescent performance gives the audience reason to care about Young Donna even when the script forgets to. Hollow overtures are made toward character development in the third act, but the Young Donna's arc ultimately amounts to what would be a 'just for fun' subplot in any other movie. But James sells the familiar rom-com antics with the ease and charisma of a natural-born star. It's only a matter of time before she becomes one of the biggest movie stars in the world. 

The present-day stuff on the island is given even less of a functional plot thread than the flashbacks. It's sort of about Sophie re-opening her mother's house as a hotel, sort of about a rough patch in Sophie and Skye's marriage, but not really about either. Not that a Mamma Mia film requires much of a plot, as all scenes and characters are merely vessels to deliver ABBA tunes set to elaborate production numbers. And the numbers are great this time around, even if the approach is much different from Phyllida Lloyd's stagy, wonderfully nonsensical original. Ol Parker, the screenwriter and director of Here We Go Again, opts for a more grounded, mainstream style. The effect is that the musical numbers look like they could be music videos in the way are shot and edited, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, average moviegoers will probably prefer it to the way the dancing in the original looked as if it could have been lifted directly from the stage.

Amanda Seyfried's career is in an arguably worse state now than it was in 2008, which is a shame because I love her singular screen presence. Seeing how Seyfried's Sophie has subtly matured in the ten years since the original is one of the highlights of the movie. The supporting cast, comprised of Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Bronson, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth play their characters with just the right amount of archness. The filmmakers make you wait for Meryl, but it's worth it, as she proves once again how much she can do with little screen time. Cher isn't called upon to use her acting chops (don't forget that in the '80s she won Best Actress prizes at both the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival), but rather to show up late in the proceedings to deliver a couple of razor-sharp lines and sing "Fernando" with Andy Garcia. I'm not sure what the point was, but asking what's the point is beside the point in a movie like this. It's fun. Just enjoy it. 

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is in theaters July 20th. 

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