Half sequel, half prequel, and almost entirely disconnected from the film being sold by its trailers, Ol Parker’s “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is an amiable, energetic followup to the 2008 smash hit. It’s also missing its biggest star, Meryl Streep as Donna Sheridan, and her absence is keenly felt. Thank goodness then for Lily James, whose performance as a young version of Streep’s irrepressible heroine finally seems like the one to catapult the actress to the next level of her career, while also keeping the dizzy (and dizzying) musical afloat.
Set five years after the events of the first film, “Here We Go Again” returns to the picturesque Greek island of Kalokairi, where Donna’s daughter Sophie (a returning Amanda Seyfried) is attempting to make her mother’s long-running dreams of turning their rustic farmhouse into a glitzy hotel come true, though noticeably without the help of her mom or Sophie’s boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper). While Sky’s absence is explained away through a fraught phone call (he’s boning up on his hotel management skills with a quickie gig in New York City), what’s become of Donna is first visually telegraphed through a cinematic mainstay that’s never a good sign: a giant portrait of her face. Cue the saddest ABBA song you can think of. Play it twice.
Donna may be gone, but she’s not forgotten, and “Here We Go Again” soon splits into two decidedly Donna-centric plotlines: Sophie and her hotel-opening preparations (complete with plenty of appearances by the original film’s many, many returning co-stars, plus Andy Garcia having just the best time) and flashbacks to young Donna making her way to the remote island that will eventually become her home. James’ Donna is introduced by way of a full-scale song-and-dance extravaganza, set during her college graduation and somewhat worryingly scored to ABBA’s “When I Kissed the Teacher,” where she’s joined by younger versions of both Christine Baranski’s Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn, turning an impersonation of the older actress into a hilarious performance all her own) and Julie Walters’ Rosie (Alexa Davies).
“Here We Go Again” hinges on a few important Donna takeaways, including that she’s always been prone to performing inventive versions of ABBA songs whenever the occasion remotely calls for it, that she’s consistently the most interesting person in any situation, and that her mother is Cher (no, really, her mother is a world-renowned pop star too busy to mother her, and she’s literally played by Cher in the film). The first “Mamma Mia” was a present-day feature hamstrung by the events of the past – remember how it was all about untangling the intricacies of young Donna’s love life, all the better to figure out just who the heck is Sophie’s dad? – yet the second film is at its best when actually dramatizing what happened, when, how, and (mostly) with whom. It’s the rare rehash that works.
The same can be said of the copious ABBA songs that reappear in “Here We Go Again” after rounding out the stacked soundtrack of the first film. Classics like “Mamma Mia,” “I Have a Dream,” and “Dancing Queen” are given new life by a game cast and the film’s indefatigable energy, while other bangers like “One of Us” and “Fernando” are gussied up with inventive (and just plain fun) song-and-dance sequences, though it’s “Waterloo” that steals the show with a rendition set inside a French restaurant. James’ version of Donna both nods to Streep’s earlier performance and allows her to make it her own, charming as anything and vivacious enough to tug along the film’s more limp moments.
Unfortunately, most of those limp moments happen when James isn’t onscreen, thanks to a short-shrift storyline regarding Sophie’s quest to open the Hotel Bella Donna. While that portion of the film’s bisected storyline is responsible for bringing back a slew of returning faces — including Baranski, Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth — it’s also the one most lacking in both joy and actual stakes. (It’s also what the marketing plays up as plot points, although they don’t actually become important until the film’s final 15 minutes.) Ultimately, throwing the same people in the same place with little to do and even less time to do it is emblematic of the sins of far worse, much less worthy sequels. Without Streep there to tie it altogether, well, it just doesn’t sing.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” will be in theaters on Friday, July 20.