In my eyes, the first Mamma Mia! film was perfect. The ludicrously-plotted Abba jukebox musical was sheer charisma: two hours of silly, effervescent joy. The second comes with two not inconsiderable challenges: 1) the most famous Abba tracks have already been used in the original, 2) lead character Donna (Meryl Streep) has (apparently by choice, and not as a result of scheduling conflicts) been killed off.
The Mamma Mia films are a bizarre exemption to the usual rules of cinema. Character? Plot? Who needs ’em! No one ever bothers to tell us how Donna died, even though she is the one person who unites the film’s disparate gaggle of friends and family. No one faces any major challenges: the key drama of the film is located in a short burst of inclement weather. Instead of characterisation, audiences are asked to rely on their existing sense of the personalities of the actors: the sensual haughtiness of Christina Baranski, the pretend seriousness of Colin Firth, always faux-reluctantly dancing his way through rom-coms, the glint in Julie Walters’ eye.
This sequel has a more reflective tone than the banger-a-minute original, thanks to Donna’s death, a series of flashbacks, and a reliance on more ballads like “Angel Eyes”, “Andante, Andante” and “My Love, My Life”. One great shame is the distinct lack of what I (perhaps misguidedly) think of as sexy Abba – “Lay All Your Love On Me”, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, “Voulez-Vouz”, “Does Your Mother Know?” – and therefore less opportunities for dance sequences featuring middle-aged women gawking at shirtless hunks, one of the fundamental joys of the original. (The script attempts to make up for this with lines like “Be still my beating vagina”.)
At first, I was a little disappointed by this shift. Then a ship full of manically happy extras docked into the film’s Greek island, fronted by Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård in a Titanic-style embrace, deliberately terrible dad moves on display to “Dancing Queen”, and despite myself I was cry-laughing tears of delight. The outrageous plot swerve written to shoe-horn in “Fernando” is nonsensical, predictable and, simply, perfect; Cher and Andy Garcia are irresistible together. It can’t rival the relentless ecstasy of the original, but at its best moments, it comes close.
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special