Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again review: “A sequel that only sporadically springs into vividly irresistible life”

A familiar fairy-tale formula, but if you like Abba, spandex, glitter dust, 70s kitsch and holiday romances, it's a musical worth taking a chance on

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Universal, EH)

★★★

Even if movie musicals are based on a hit Broadway or West End show, they rarely get the sequel treatment. Mainly because the original is so perfectly formed after years of well-honed productions, their emotional through-lines are brought to such a satisfactory conclusion that it’s considered a pointless exercise. Well, in the artistic sense, not the commercial one, which is really the only reason why Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again exists. It does nothing the first film didn’t do, except hang some more catchy Abba songs on an even thinner plot that pays lip service to themes of female empowerment, friendship and love, while providing another chance for gifted actors to perform quality pop in sun-kissed, picturesque summer-holiday surroundings.

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Solving the problem of whether to go back to the beginning or pick up where Mamma Mia! left off, writers Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson and director Ol Parker have it both ways by transitioning two storylines together, so the flashback past informs the chaotic present. Think The Notebook in espadrilles! Back on the Greek island of Kalokairi, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is organising a gala re-opening of her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) taverna, now rebranded the Hotel Bella Donna. Sophie’s relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper) is going through a rocky patch – he’s in New York supposedly learning the restaurant trade – so she leans on her mother’s visiting best friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) for support, especially when she realises she’s pregnant.

Because these events mirror her mother’s experiences in 1979, Tanya and Rosie share memories of Donna’s adventurous youth: how her Oxford graduation ceremony began The Dynamos, why she ended up broke in Greece renovating an old villa, how she met each one of Sophie’s possible fathers –  Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth) – and then coped raising a daughter as a single parent far from home. Playing the younger counterpoints to the established stars are Lily James, who is absolutely adorable as Donna, Jessica Keenan Wynn, who nails Baranski’s spiky attitude perfectly as Tanya, and Alexa Davies who overdoes the over-emotional Rosie. Immature Sam, Bill and Harry are respectively played by Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan, who all look their handsome parts and do the heavy-lifting when it comes to singing, although you do have Brosnan amusingly humming a few bars of SOS while his compadres simply join in with the group numbers.

Most of Abba’s back catalogue of crown jewels were used in Mamma Mia!, although there are also reprises of that title song, Dancing Queen (which gets an epic seafaring treatment), I Have a Dream and Super Trouper, which all the cast croon over the end credits. Subsequently, the sing-along material is provided by Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Name of the Game and Waterloo, the latter a raucous routine staged in a Paris café. But it’s such lesser-known gems as When I Kissed the Teacher, One of Us and Why Did It Have to Be Me? that really resonate and inject much-needed energy into the flat proceedings. In the case of Angel Eyes and I’ve Been Waiting for You, both sung by the trio of Baranski, Walters and Seyfried, Parker’s journeyman direction is transcended by pure star power, with further heights reached by James’s gorgeous rendition of Andante, Andante.

But it’s down to cannily cast diva Cher, playing Sophie’s maternal grandmother Ruby Sheridan, to really raise the roof as she does singing Fernando in duet with her lost love (played by Andy Garcia). The moment white-wigged Cher steps out of her helicopter on the jetty in that sparkling, sun-drenched bay, she owns the movie hook, line and sinker and virtually nothing else exists. Or at least until Meryl Streep appears singing My Love, My Life in that famous cliff-top church and instantly reduces the audience to floods of tears. In a replica of The Winner Takes It All showstopper in Mamma Mia!, it’s a stunningly bravura moment that will live long in the memory.

Flashes of brilliance like those make this sequel sporadically spring to vividly irresistible life. The very nature of the dual timeline and free-for-all plot means many of the actors are reduced to playing glorified cameos, as the main body is shouldered by the younger cast and while Richard Curtis’s involvement is clear with some of the more pithy and vulgar one-liners, the old-fashioned screenplay is fairy-tale formula all the way. It says a lot that Omid Djalili, playing a cynical Greek customs officer, has the best laughs and his surprise contribution was obviously considered crucial enough for him to be given the post-final credits sign-off.

Look, if you love Abba, spandex, glitter dust, 70s kitsch and holiday romances, Here We Go Again is worth taking a chance on as it fits the candyfloss bill to the letter despite the flaws. Will it make yet more money, money, money at the box office? Probably. Does it deserve to? Not really. But such is the universal love for Abba in their all-conquering pop-culture glory, that just having the opportunity to hear their jukebox repertoire sung wonderfully once more is enough cause for mass celebration.

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Released in cinemas on Friday 20 July