There’s no defense against the new “Mamma Mia!”, 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 both topless and chaste. Yet there’s a wellspring of genuine feeling in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a time-hopping sequel that amounts to 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 completely—and Sophie, about to have a baby (and to reopen the hotel), wants to understand the beloved mother who brought her into the world.
The story shuttles between Sophie’s present and a long-ago in which Donna is a free and buoyant spirit played by Lily James. Dominic Cooper is back as Sophie’s heartthrob, Sky. So are Christine Baranski and Julie Walters as Donna’s old friends and band mates, plus Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård as her old boyfriends, Sam, any one of whom might have fathered Sophie. And all of the above show up as their younger versions.
It’s another jukebox musical, basically, and Lily James, like Amanda Seyfried, sings in a modest and mostly endearing voice that’s closer to “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” than the tradition of Broadway belters. She makes Donna a joy, though 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 the hardest of hearts may melt 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.
I’ve waited until now to talk about an apparition that the film saves for almost-last: the arrival, on that storybook island, of Cher in the role of Ruby Sheridan, a previously unseen 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 especially precocious in the area of child-bearing. But no one’s going to think about it when Cher, goddess-like in white with platinum hair, descends from her helicopter to join a 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.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.