Ah, sweet(ish) surrender…there’s simply no defense against “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” with its bright colors, brighter smiles, exuberant music, merry villagers and moist radiance. Yes, the glee is industrial-strength, and the ABBA-fueled production numbers are so far over the top that the film is at once topless and chaste. Yet there’s a wellspring of genuine feeling in this time-hopping sequel, framed as an origin story.
In the first film, which opened 10 years ago, Meryl Streep was the unquenchable Donna Sheridan, a former rocker and the owner of a hotel on an idyllic Greek island. Amanda Seyfried was her daughter, Sophie, about to be married and determined to find the identity of her father. Now the adult Donna is out of the picture—though not entirely, as the trailers reveal—and Ms. Seyfried’s Sophie, about to have a baby (and to reopen the hotel), wants to understand the beloved mother who brought her into the world.
Powered by that potent pretext, the story shuttles between Sophie’s present and a long-ago in which Donna, a free and buoyant spirit, is played by Lily James. Dominic Cooper is, once again, Sophie’s heartthrob, Sky. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are back as Donna’s old friends and former Dynamos band mates, Tanya and Rosie. So are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård as her old boyfriends, Sam, Harry and Bill, any one of whom might have fathered Sophie, and all of whom help Sophie evoke her mother’s past. (As for solving the paternity mystery once and for all, I’ll say only that in the course of the new film no DNA tests are administered.)
The “Here We Go Again” part of the title, which deftly invokes the ABBA song, might also have served as a confessional comment on Hollywood’s all-pervasive sequelitis, but there’s no sense of weariness here. The energy level is set from the start when Donna, chosen to give the valedictory address at her graduation from Oxford, bursts into bewitching dance and song in a rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” accompanied by Tanya and Rosie, who are played as young women by Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies. ( Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan are dreamboat-charming as Donna’s boyfriends, the very same Sam, Harry and Bill.)
Ms. James, like Ms. Seyfried, sings in a modest and mostly endearing voice that’s closer to the style of “The Umbrellas of Cher bourg” than to the tradition of Broadway belters. She makes Donna a joy, if occasionally an overjoy; sometimes you wonder whether the movie’s young heroine will ever stop smiling. She does, though—beauty is no defense against pain—and you are hereby challenged to remain unmoved when the film juxtaposes the birth of Sophie’s child with Sophie being born to a flower child living alone on rocky soil in a faraway place.
In one of a string of romantic scenes, the moon floats so large above the Aegean that it seems to have continents instead of craters. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” goes in for all sorts of magnification—outsize performances, sentiments, costumes and settings. (When Bill and Harry show up at the island for the hotel’s grand reopening, they arrive with a flotilla of boats that suggests some alt-world Dunkirk.) What’s notable about the broadness, though, is that it stays clear of grandiosity. That’s a tribute to the skill and confidence of the writer-director, Ol Parker. The original production was extremely likable, but far from expert. Nor was it considered fashionable—I took a lot of teasing for my positive review—while this new one may be welcomed for being so upbeat about life at a time when we need all the legal high spirits we can get.
I’ve waited until now to talk about an apparition that the film saves for almost-last: the arrival, on the storybook island, of Cher in the role of Ruby Sheridan, a hitherto unseen and conspicuously uninvited denizen of Las Vegas who is Donna’s mother and Sophie’s grandmother. If you stop to think about it, Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep, so Ruby would have been unusually precocious in the child-bearing department. But no one will stop to think about it when Cher, clad goddess-like in white with platinum hair, descends from her helicopter to join a climactic party in progress. She speaks slowly, as if from another planet, and when she sings and dances to “Fernando” with Andy Garcia’s Fernando, who manages the hotel, fireworks fill the sky as they have not since Katharine Hepburn kissed Rossano Brazzi on a Venice balcony in “Summertime.” Restraint is for the faint of heart.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org