We are and we aren’t. Make no mistake, the deep blue waters of the Aegean shimmer as beautifully as ever, and the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi has never looked more inviting. The whisper-thin story revisits old characters and familiar circumstances, but with a tremulous new delicacy of feeling. The soundtrack still maintains an infectious stream of ’70s and ’80s Europop, sending the actors into neatly choreographed paroxysms of song and dance, as if — ABBA-cadabra! — they had suddenly been possessed en masse by benign, toe-tapping Scandinavian demons.
A touch of magic might be the only plausible explanation for how 2008’s “Mamma Mia!,” one of the most excruciating live-action movie musicals of the past decade, could have spawned one of the loveliest. Some shrewd decisions behind the camera surely helped, and in front of the camera, too. (We’ll get to Cher in a moment.) The 2008 picture, directed with insistent-bordering-on-fascistic good cheer by Phyllida Lloyd, was a disappointment in every sense but the bottom line. It spun a beloved songbook and an insanely popular stage property into the requisite box-office gold.
Whether similar riches await this sequel, written and directed by Ol Parker (“Imagine Me & You”) and in theaters beginning Friday, seems almost beside the point, and not just because “Money, Money, Money” is one of several classic ABBA chart-toppers not making a return appearance. If anything, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is an object lesson in how the best thing you could do artistically might be the worst thing you could do commercially. Not to spoil the first two minutes, but (spoiler alert) who knew that killing off Meryl Streep could be such a grand idea?
You read that right. Donna (Streep), the first movie’s boa-brandishing, overalls-rocking heroine, is as dead as a drachma when the story opens. Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), happily if somewhat stressfully married to businessman Sky (Dominic Cooper), has spent months restoring her mom’s old hotel with a lot of help from Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the most present of her three fathers, and a new right-hand man (Andy Garcia, suavity personified). With the grand reopening days away, a tidal wave of journalists, luxury travelers and friendly faces is about to descend on Kalokairi, among them Donna’s fellow Dynamos, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).
Although Walters is appreciably subtler this time around, her Rosie can’t help bursting into tears whenever Donna’s name is mentioned — a genial recurring gag that might leave you wiping your own eyes by the time the inevitable big reunion gets under way. Which is not to suggest that “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” bogs down in funereal gloom or sentimental excess. The emotional reality of Donna’s loss registers in a few fleeting, precisely observed moments, evident in the lost, forlorn look on Sam’s face and also in Sophie’s poignant determination to honor her mother’s memory.
The movie shares her determination. Not advancing the story so much as deepening it, Parker returns us to that golden summer of 1979 when the free-spirited young Donna (a superbly spirited Lily James) sets out on a European tour and has her fateful flings with Future Colin Firth (Hugh Skinner), Future Stellan Skarsgard (Josh Dylan) and Future Pierce Brosnan (Jeremy Irvine). The journey to Greece and single motherhood is an eventful one, paved with idyllic yacht trips, impromptu musical gigs, off-screen sexual interludes and a rousing performance of “Waterloo” in a conveniently history-themed French restaurant.
Parker and his editor, Peter Lambert, keep dissolving between Donna’s past and Sophie’s present, some times more gracefully than others, but always with a striking clarity of purpose. We see young Donna arriving at the dilapidated ruin on Kalokairi at exactly the same time that Sophie is showing off her refurbished hotel, and the whirlwind of cross-cutting that ensues is scarcely just for show: It evokes the bond between mother and daughter with a force that feels both primal and spiritual, suffused with joy as well as loss.
With its relentlessly jumpy chronology, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” has the structure and rhythm of an accordion, one that just so happens to play nothing but ABBA songs. The first “Mamma Mia!” hogged most of the golden oldies, which suited its over-the-top, me-first extravagance. While Parker and his collaborators are not above reprising a dependable showstopper like “Dancing Queen” or “Super Trouper” (who would be?), they’ve had the much tougher job of raiding the group’s not-inconsiderable back catalog. Their song list may not pack the same crowd-pleasing razzle-dazzle energy as the first film’s, but the B-sides here nicely suit the more melancholy tenor of the story they’re telling.
It’s a marvel what a few committed performers and a skilled director can accomplish. With a palette of pastel blues and some clever use of mirrors, they can turn a song like “One of Us” into a wistful ballad of marital discord. And James, who made a brief, winning singing debut in Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” (2015), shoulders the frontwoman duties here with real verve, whether Donna’s rocking an Oxford graduation ceremony with her playfully transgressive spin on “When I Kissed the Teacher” or auditioning for bar-band duty with the soulfully mellow “Andante, Andante.” (She gets impeccable backup, on and off the stage, from Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies as her younger Dynamos.)
And what of Cher? Let’s just say that like any diva worth her salt, she takes her time — first by arriving late into the proceedings and then by drawing out “Fernando,” her indisputable musical highlight, with a deliberation so breathtaking that even the accompanying fireworks seem to be erupting in slo-mo. In these moments, the honey-toned pop artifice of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” becomes so overwhelming, you forget all qualms, all appeals to reason and logic — which is not to say your inconvenient questions won’t resurface later.
What year is this taking place again? Couldn’t they have given Colin Firth a boyfriend? Why cast Cher as Meryl Streep’s mother? I understand that Cher, not unlike ABBA, transcends such petty concerns as time, space, age and physics, but that’s one mysterious parental back story I’d pay to see. Can we get a third movie out of this? Honey, I’m still free. Take a chance on three.
‘MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN’
Rating: PG-13, for some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
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