Some films aspire to lofty messages, trying to say something deep and profound about our place in the world in an attempt to make us feel less alone. Others accomplish this by having a goat chase Lily James. Whatever works.
Feeling good is the reason the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! franchise exists, and Lily James, goats, and the ever-popular songs of ABBA are a potent combination if you just want to let it all go. So who cares if Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again isn’t the most refined, highfalutin piece of entertainment out there? It’s a peppy, bright frivolity that always brings a smile to my face, so if you’re one of those people who look down on it, you can show yourself to the door.
Alright, only the good time folks left? Then let’s rejoice in all the silliness of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, because there’s so much of it to revel in.
I mentioned the goats already, who make a few incongruous appearances for no other reason than to be weird. There’s also a horse in (very mild) peril who is saved by Jeremy Irvine, aka the star of War Horse. And then there’s Celia Imrie, a veteran of writer/director Ol Parker’s equally silly lesbian romance Imagine Me & You, appearing as the teacher who is kissed by James in the big opening number, When I Kissed the Teacher.
I knew I was in good hands as soon as James planted that playful peck on Imrie, because it showed the knowingly silly, slyly smart, audience aware tone the whole movie resides in, one that is about 100 steps up from its atrocious predecessor, Mamma Mia!. Where that was a dull and lifeless staging of songs you’ve heard a million times, here Parker pinpoints the excesses in ABBA’s hits that make them pop culture staples, and for a film that literally cobbles together a plot from those songs, it’s very helpful that they are understood.
Take Waterloo, for instance. It’s a big ol’ love song, so Parker puts it right at the beginning of the romantic escapades. The movie, you see, takes us back in time to when the original film’s protagonist, Donna, has trysts with three men in quick succession. The first is an uptight young man who falls for her hard, winning her over with this exuberant number featuring an array of French stereotypes he clumsily falls into while dancing around a restaurant in Paris.
It’s a big number, one of the more elaborate of the movie, and it’s there to kick off the lighthearted romantic escapades that pepper Donna’s flashback and tie in the present-day goings on of her daughter, Sophie, who is trying to keep her marriage together and reopen her mother’s hotel.
That makes it sound a bit too serious. Technically, all that is going on in Sophie’s life, but there’s never any doubt that everything will work out because the movie makes any hint of conflict disappear in the bright Greek sunshine. Or in Lily James’ hair, which is spruced up into a remarkably full-bodied mess of waves that bounce ever so perfectly as she dances.
Immaculate hair aside, James really is this film’s secret weapon, taking on the role of Donna as originated by Meryl Streep and leading the movie along with her easygoing energy. It’s hard, deceptively hard, to be this peppy without being annoying, and oh yeah, she can sing and dance, too.
And then there’s the big addition here, the gay and camp friendly cast member that cements how much Ol Parker knew what he was doing with this silliness. I mean, who do you call when you need pop hits belted out in glittery outfits for your predominantly day drunk female audience? Cher. You always call Cher.
She doesn’t actually show up until late in the movie, paying off every bit of anticipation with her spot-on take on an arrogant matriarch (she somehow plays Streep’s mother despite only being three years older in real life). And her song is not only the big solo she deserves, it’s also the payoff of a joke that runs for the entire movie, because again, Parker knows how to punctuate what his audience wants.
That audience, the women, the gays, and anyone who appreciates large doses of camp, rarely gets catered to with such big, splashy releases as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. That we got one, and that we got one pulled off with all the deliciousness of Christine Baranski saying “be still my beating vagina”, makes this one to relish for all time.