'Mamma Mia! 2': The Less We See of Meryl Streep, the Better

Why 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' is better than its predecessor

Jessica Keenan Wynn, Lily James and Alexa Davies in a scene from "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again."
Courtesy of Tulip Entertainment

The idea behind the global phenomenon known as “Mamma Mia!” is no less than brilliant. It’s an incredible fusion of originality and lack of originality. Instead of writing a good story and interspersing it with catchy tunes that blend in naturally, elevate the plot and become hits themselves, the musical theater creator Judy Craymer took the opposite path: hits first, story afterward. With billions of people able to hum ABBA songs whether they choose to or not, the potential was as great for a stage musical as for a film version. But the success of the sequel is a true challenge, because, as humanity discovered about petroleum, ABBA’s songs are not an infinite resource.

Since its premiere in London’s West End, the musical “Mamma Mia!” has broken almost every possible record. Its various productions, spanning 50 countries, including Israel, have been seen by some 60 million people. The film adaptation became the big surprise of 2008, grossing $600 million to become the fifth most profitable movie that year. Meryl Streep reminded everyone how wide her range is, but the film itself was roundly panned, and rightly so. The reins had been handed to the original West End production team, headed by the director, Phyllida Lloyd, who until then had directed only one television program. The result was a cloying, kitschy filmed stage musical, instead of a cloying, kitschy movie, which actually could have been enjoyable.

Now, a decade later, the global phenomenon gets a film sequel, with a key lesson internalized. First, the direction and writing were entrusted to Ol Parker (“Now Is Good,” screenplay for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel). If the original was a kind of conceptual exercise in screenwriting – take 20 pop songs and weave them together into a single narrative – Parker, too, was given the same task. Compounding the situation was the fact that the plot and the characters already existed and had experienced a happy ending. The ability to create a new narrative became more complex, primarily because many of the songs are about heartbreak.

Immediately at the start of the new movie, we discover that the marketing people have blurred an important fact (for reasons we can surmise): Meryl Streep (who played Donna) is no longer the star. As this is the picture’s opening, it won’t be a spoiler to say that the protagonist of “Mamma Mia!” has already died when we encounter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), Donna’s daughter again, five years after the previous episode. She’s getting ready to open her mother’s inn on the Greek island where she grew up.

Not missing Meryl

But ahead of the grand launch she has a fight with her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), besides which it rains a lot – this somehow being an obstacle Sophie is supposed to overcome. Luckily for her, her mother’s two entertaining friends, played by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, arrive to provide support. Along the way, they fill her in about the background to the inn’s establishment. So the plot splits backward and forward, and together with the sequel about the founding of Sophie’s inn we also get a prequel of young Donna’s launch of the project.

It’s 1979, and Donna (Lily James) has just graduated. Like many other young people before and since, she “goes east,” which for her means Europe. That’s effectively the story that Sophie investigated in the first film, with the aid of her mother’s diary. She discovered that she has three potential fathers and found out how her mother became an innkeeper on a random island in the Aegean Sea. Even as we follow Sophie as she copes with the logistics of organizing the launch of a hotel crammed with photographs of her mother, we also follow the escapades of her mother, the young Donna, as she maneuvers among three good-looking young men.

Here’s an observation you don’t read every day and isn’t so easy to write: The reduction of Meryl Streep’s role benefits the picture. James was given the impossible task of filling the shoes of one of the greatest actresses in the history of the cinema, but the young star enjoys several advantages in a musical. To begin with, she’s a better singer and dancer than Streep. The filmmakers also learned the lesson in regard to the three young men, all of whom try to imitate their older version. Hugh Skinner, as “young Harry,” is the best of them, delivering a superb impersonation of Colin Firth.

With Ol Parker directing and more freedom for the choreographer, Anthony Van Laast, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” accomplishes the makeover from musical theater to musical motion picture. If the sight of multitudes of men footed with flippers and dancing on a dock to impress Meryl Streep remains engraved in your memory from the first movie, that’s mainly because of the static quality that turned a lighthearted scene into something ridiculous.

Parker’s integration of the camera’s movement with the choreography is more organic, so that the two elements play off each other and cover for the weakness of actors who are less skilled at singing. With half the plot involving a new cast, it’s clear what was learned from the first film, in which Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep performed an obscene act on the song “S.O.S.” This time, Parker has opted for good performers over big names.

Yet all these improvements can’t save the movie from an even larger problem, namely the songs themselves. After squeezing the “ABBA Gold” collection like an orange for the first film, this one makes do with leftovers and with recycling a few songs from the original. Craymer’s brainwave – creating a musical whose songs the audience already knows by heart – doesn’t survive the sequel, which functions like a B-side movie. ABBA’s power of attraction will continue to cast its spell on the pop group’s dyed-in-the-wool fans, who will be familiar with the new performances – but as for the rest, there’s no guarantee.

Still, it’s important to remember that ABBA remains a well-oiled hit-making machine, and the new picture, too, is packed with catchy pop songs, some familiar, some less so. The shifting of the plot to 1979 was a smart move on the way to connecting the storyline to the songs, heartbreak and all. The most creative musical moments, though this isn’t always positive, come in the sequel’s plot, when Sophie copes with the obstacles of the rain and her partner.

The attempt to insinuate existing songs into the narrative and intertwine them with the plot turns out to be too complex. That leads to a disgraceful compromise in the storyline in order to introduce ABBA’s still unused greatest songs. The result is some of the weirdest numbers a musical can serve up, with Cher and Andy Garcia executing a cover for “Fernando” that bears cult potential.

Devotees of trash, kitsch and ABBA’s complete oeuvre are the trinity to which the movie is appealing. They are also the people who have no need for a review like this, because they’ll see the movie no matter what. For others it’s important to emphasize that even if they thought the first movie was “gold,” like the ABBA album, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is far from being silver, or even bronze.