Originally published: Sommet Dame Magazine
Musicals don’t often get sequels. Phantom of The Opera has Love Never Dies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has Shock Treatment, Annie has… well, Annie 2, but for the most part, musical sequels are few and far between. Those that do exist tend to fall flat both with critics and at the box office, and the reason for that is simple: musicals just don’t lend themselves to follow-ups. In most cases, by the time the curtain falls or the credits roll, every question we have about the characters has been answered, and every loose end has been tied up in a neat little bow. There just aren’t many plot points left unresolved, which can make going back to the world feel inconsequential or even detrimental to the original.
That was definitely an issue Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again had to deal with. Despite having a title so perfect you could almost justify making the movie on its strength alone, the first film ended with very little need for a continuation. Hotel owner and mother Donna had re-acquainted with the lost love of her life, daughter Sophie had resolved to live without knowing which of her three “dads” was actually her biological father, and her relationship with her fiancé Sky was secure. It’s a movie musical ending so sweet it’s almost saccharine, and audiences were understandably worried about where a sequel could possibly go from there.
So, it’s no surprise that part two opens with the knowledge that Donna is dead. Not only that, but Sky is halfway across the world considering both a career and relationship change. Only one of the dads is present and, though Sophie has spent the year since Donna’s death rebuilding the hotel in her honour, a storm destroys all that hard work before the end of the first act. The hotel is taken back to square one and the universe is knocked back with it, giving the movie space to build its characters up anew. Instead of following the gang through the fluffy oceanside romp we expect, we are confronted with a multi-generational group all struggling with grief in their own way.
Of course, Mamma Mia 2 doesn’t only function as a sequel. We spend half the movie in flashbacks, watching as a young Donna finds her way to the fictional Greek island she eventually calls home. We see her stumble through the three whirlwind romances that shape the conflict of the first movie, making mistakes and falling in and out of love in glorious technicolor. The film never misses an opportunity to throw the differences between Donna and Sophie’s lives into sharp relief: Donna was a flirt while Sophie had just one sweetheart, Donna’s mother was neglectful while Sophie’s was beyond attentive. However, the story is at its most compelling when it shows their similarities: when it comes to motherhood and heartbreak, they both face the journey without their own mom at their side.
That’s not to say that Mamma Mia 2 is somber: as a movie musical, it is much closer to Moulin Rouge! than Les Mis. In typical Broadway fashion, no problem is so great that it can’t be overcome by song, and even ABBA’s B-sides (AKA the only songs left over after the first movie) are more than anthemic enough to pull the story through some of its more plot-starved moments. Aside from the few key scenes in which the themes of grief and uncertainty are spotlighted, the tone is one of fluff and farce, whether we are singing along to “Waterloo” in 1979 or giggling along to a rendition of “Angel Eyes” led by cake-scoffing Julie Walters.
This whimsical approach is compounded by a clear “bigger = better” ethos. More sweeping vistas, more inexplicable boat-based dance numbers, twice the core cast and an even more ridiculously large chorus. Everything, from the costumes to the setting to the physical gags, is more bombastic, giving it all the heightened and slightly dream-like quality of a pantomime or a Vegas show. This applies to the cast too and, given the considerable star power of the original, the logical progression of this attitude results in the movie’s greatest strength: Cher.
It is with Cher’s arrival that the movie sheds any pretence of serious character drama, and finally hits the absurdly glitzy heights it was heading for all along. The final 45 minutes pass in a blur of sequins, platform heels and spandex, with Cher in the centre and the rest of the cast orbiting around her. The film makes no effort to hide its stunt casting: the explanation for her presence in the narrative is already flimsy, and her actual arrival is played as close to a fourth wall break as possible. When she steps one silver stiletto out of her private helicopter, we could just as easily be seeing Cher’s arrival on set as Ruby’s arrival on the island, and it’s a pivotal moment precisely because of that.
By the time she arrives, pretty much all the important plot stuff has been resolved and tidied away, leaving just enough time for a few quippy one-liners and a full descent into seventies-tinged ABBA delirium. The last act of the film is by far the most shallow and inconsequential, even if it boasts the best songs and performances of the whole thing. It is a movie musical sequel in its purest form: a paper-thin excuse to have fun and watch stars belt out showtunes. However, the fact that it is not wholly necessary only gives it permission to be even more extra, which makes it compulsory viewing whether you saw the original or not.