There are three things in this otherwise unknowable life of which I am certain. The first is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be infinitely more fun than it already is if studio brass would hand Taika Waititi the keys to any property his little floral shirt-wearing, one-liner-filled, New Zealander heart desires. The second? Cereal, any kind but Lucky Charms moreso than others, tastes better when eaten in bed, preferably between the hours of 9pm and 12am. The third is that nothing is more healing for the soul than an ABBA song — and nothing able to instantly melt me into a puddle of goopy glee than director Phyllida Lloyd’s 2008 masterpiece (yes, I said it: masterpiece) Mamma Mia!
Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) crafted the same kind of ebullient cinematic frisk with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the 10-years-later sequel that lures viewers back to the baby-blue-everywhere Greek island of Kalokairi — where Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) landed in 1979, had a rendezvous with strapping Swede Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård) and the alluring but adulterous architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan) after spending one wild night with Harry Bright (Colin Firth), gave birth to daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), and fixed up a farmhouse into the hotel Villa Donna.
This time, the story flip-flops seamlessly between the present day, five years after Sophie’s non-wedding and Donna’s surprise nuptials to Sam and one year after Donna passed away (the hints in the trailers were true!), when Sophie is preparing to re-open her mother’s hotel as the Hotel Bella Donna while facing a potential break-up with boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper), and flashbacks of young Donna (played with natural vivacity by Lily James, who really sells being the twenty-something counterpart to Streep’s character despite the two not really looking all that alike).
We follow the infectious, charismatic Donna as she graduates from Oxford — and performs the grossly underrated ABBA track “When I Kissed the Teacher” at the ceremony alongside her fellow Dynamos Tanya (portrayed in flashbacks by Jessica Keenan Wynn, a dead ringer for original actress Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Alexa Davies, who steals scenes as the fun-loving character Julie Walters originated) — travels to Paris and does a little between-the-sheets pas de deux with Harry (Hugh Skinner) after belting out “Waterloo” in a French cafe, and later gets swept off her feet and into bed by Bill and Sam (Josh Dylan, arguably the best-cast of the three younger dudes, and Jeremy Irvine).
Both a prequel and a sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again skates through its double timelines lithely, allowing the sentiment — learning of Donna’s death, seeing Brosnan’s older Sam cry over photos he took of her in ‘79, feeling in my back the same knife Sam drove into Donna when he admitted he was engaged to a ginger beauty, hearing Sophie’s squeals of happiness when Sky returns from New York and later telling him she’s pregnant “in the exact same place” her mother was — to flow naturally, not unlike the waves that lap the Kalokairian shore.
And that’s where Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again truly thrives. Yes, the sequel sparkles off the screen, the whites and turquoises of the landscape and the ever-glittering costume design done by Michele Clapton are a treat for the eyes, and the soundtrack soars with a Seyfried-Streep duet of “My Love, My Life,” a Cher and Andy Garcia-sung “Fernando” that should be used as the new baseline definition of a powerhouse performance, and exuberant picks including “Angel Eyes,” “Why Did It Have to Be Me?”, and the ubiquitous “Mamma Mia.”
But the reason for which Here We Go Again succeeds lies in the way it makes you feel, in its ability get you all swollen up with emotion too big and too bright to not let overflow — through laughter, belted-out lyrics, and tears all the same. It’s a pleasure impossible to feel guilty about.
There are several instances (like the brilliantly choreographed “Dancing Queen” sequence and the post-credits “Super Trouper” joyfest) beautiful and unbridled enough to cause such happy-cries — not because there is any one especially emotional thing about the moments in question, but because they simply, perfectly capture joy in its purest form. They prove the truth in Donna’s wise words: “Life is short, and the world is wide.” So, why not make some memories — and later, a life — in the Mediterranean?
Mid-way through the credits, after the “Super Trouper” spotlights shifted to the right of the screen and on into nothingness, I was already wishing for another entry in the Mamma Mia! universe. The writer-director hasn’t said one way or another whether a three-quel is a possibility — but Parker, if you change your mind, well, you know where I’ll be.