As bright as the Greek sun that shines over it and as bouncy as the ABBA soundtrack that fills it, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is that rare and wonderful thing: A sequel that surpasses its predecessor in every way.
Of course, the first “Mamma Mia!” came with a lot of baggage — namely, the expectations of fans who loved the Broadway jukebox musical, and the hopes that our finest living woman actor, Meryl Streep, would bring it to life. Streep did just that, depicting the free-spirited Donna Sheridan, confronted with the three great lovers of her past, with all the joy and world-wise attitude necessary. Alas, the movie still felt confined to the stage.
Not this time. With theater director Phyllida Lloyd giving up the directing chair to Ol Parker (best known for writing the adaptations of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), the sequel feels liberated from its stage roots. There are musical numbers on boats, on piers, and in the ramshackle Greek farmhouse that Donna dreams of turning into a luxury hotel.
That farmhouse-turned-hotel is where the story starts, with Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) trying to fulfill her late mother’s dream. The Hotel Bella Donna is about to open, thanks to Sophie’s hard work and an assist from her miracle worker of a manager, Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia).
Donna’s old singing partners, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) come for the opening. Sam (Pierce Brosnan), one of Sophie’s three fathers and Donna’s husband in her final years, is already living there, while co-fathers Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth) will miss the opening. Also missing the opening is Sophie’s husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), in New York and being offered a job that could take him away from Sophie and the hotel. Foremost on everyone’s mind is Donna, whom everyone agrees is there in spirit.
The story of Sophie’s preparations, and her pining for Sky (which cues up a nicely edited duet between Seyfried and Cooper of “One of Us”), is intercut with the story of how Donna got to Greece. Lily James (“Cinderella”) plays the young Donna to sun-kissed perfection, with an unbridled joy and the chutzpah to take on Streep’s role and make it her own.
Starting with Donna’s Oxford valedictory speech (singing “When I Kissed the Teacher,” a deep cut in the ABBA canon), the movie shows us how Donna met the three important men in her life within a month of each other. In Paris, she has a one-night fling with Harry (Hugh Skinner), a virginal banker’s son. In Greece, she catches a ride from Bill (Josh Dylan) on the sailboat he’s about to race. Also in Greece, she meets Sam (Jeremy Irvine), an architect taking a break from his pre-ordained life. Also popping up are Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn), ready to commiserate with Donna through song.
The soundtrack repurposes six chestnuts from the first movie — young Harry wooing Donna in a Paris restaurant to “Waterloo” is one of the film’s highlights — and digs deeper into the ABBA playlist for 11 more numbers. It’s a sin that the first “Mamma Mia!” skipped over “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” which is worked here into a touching break-up scene.
The showstopper comes when Cher, playing Donna’s pop-diva mother, literally helicopters into the story. When she lends her throaty voice to one of the ABBA classics, “Fernando,” the only thing better than her performance is the way the song is set up in the script (written by Parker, who shares story credit with “Four Weddings and a Funeral” writer Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson, who wrote the book for the stage version of the original “Mamma Mia!”).
Parker gives everyone in the sprawling ensemble — even Streep — a moment to shine, and makes a few discoveries along the way. The best new faces are Davies, so charming as the lovelorn Rosie, and Wynn, who does a note-perfect Baranski impersonation. (Fun fact: Wynn’s grandfather was the character actor Keenan Wynn, and her great-grandfather was the comic legend Ed Wynn.)
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is one of those films that looks like it was as fun to make as it is to watch. It’s a glitter-bomb of happiness and music, delivered to a world that could use a lot of both.
‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”
★★★ 1/2 (out of four)
Opens nationwide on Friday, July 20, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material. Running time: 114 minutes.