I watched the sequel to one of my least favorite musicals and, wow, this was better.
Meryl Streep is dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever, about that. I considered this a surprise, as I thought she was marketed with the film, but if advertisements were always true indications of a film, I might have liked Suicide Squad.
Yes, Meryl Streep’s character, Donna, is dead and her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is set to reopen the hotel now under her management. While she is being helped by the manager Mr. Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia) and her father Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), she is upset that her other fathers, Harry and Bill (Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård), are not able to make the grand re-opening. This gets even worse when her husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), reveals that he will not be able to come either. As Donna’s band members Rosie and Tanya (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski) show up, the film flashes back to tell the story of how a young Donna (Lily James) left Rosie and Tanya (Alexa Davies and Jessica Keenan Wynn) behind to go explore Europe and meeting young Harry, Bill, and Sam (Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine). Also, we get to see Cher.
So, I saw Mamma Mia after it originally came out and I did not enjoy it. I thought it was an amazing travel commercial for Greece, but in terms of being an effective musical, even a Jukebox Musical, I felt like it fell short. Honestly, I didn’t think Meryl Streep was as focused and flawless as she usually is and I thought that the songs didn’t really add much to the story, a common problem with trying to do a musical based on one band’s catalogue. The film always felt too grounded in reality for a musical, too, which seemed partially because it had to focus on the leads over the spectacle. Moreover, it sometimes felt to me like an example of why you should not cast certain actors (names have been changed for the sake of the victims) like Bierce Prosnan as leads in a movie like this. They’re great performers, but it’s completely different to pull off a musical number.
This movie apparently read the notes from that one, because they fixed almost everything I didn’t like.
First, it is not at all grounded. Scenes in this range from “over-the-top” to “insane” and I mean both of those in the absolute best way. In order to find justifications for some of ABBA’s more outlandish songs, the musical was forced to venture to situations far outside of a Greek hotel. For example, “Waterloo” is set at a Napoleonic themed restaurant in Paris, and all of the wait staff perform elaborate choreography designed to echo famous portrayals of the French Emperor. It starts to feel like you’re really in the kind of world where people are always on the edge of bursting into song. It also helps that more random bystanders get wrapped up in the music, like when a Vice Chancellor (Celia Imrie) goes from “well, I never” to “well, I always” in the middle of “When I Kissed the Teacher.”
Second, the flashback cast is unbelievably good. Lily James really nails being a wild, young Donna, because she captures all of Meryl Streep’s joie de vivre without the regret we see for her circumstances in the first film. Alexa Davies and Jessica Keenan Wynn (from Ed Wynn’s family, no less) both have the same comedic timing as their modern counterparts, but also have the requisite energy to keep up with Lily James. Hugh Skinner, the one playing young Colin Firth, was so spot on that I realized what character he was supposed to be immediately. Given how good he was on Fleabag, I suppose I should not have been surprised. While the other two young bachelors are also excellent, I will say that they didn’t really come off as young versions of their older counterparts as much as he did. Still, they were solid and believable as people that young Donna would want to have a romantic adventure with. Also, they’re much better singers than their aged counterparts, sparing us some performance issues. It did bother me that Young Stellan was not played by one of his ~25 children, but I got over it.
Third, they added Cher. I didn’t actually list this as a problem in the first movie, but, let’s be honest, every musical that DOESN’T have Cher in it is inherently inferior. While the movie does not have her in a ton of it, when she does show up and perform, it’s a powerful boost to the third act.
Last, they definitely bumped up the dialogue for this film. I’m not saying that it’s deeper or more sincere; in fact, the opposite is true. This movie has more quips and funny one-liners that better suit the nature of a jukebox musical. There are some sincere moments, to be sure, but most of what keeps the film going are humorous interactions between the cast and this movie takes that up a notch. Admittedly, most of the good lines went to Christine Baranski, but she uses them to their fullest.
Overall, I was amazed how good this movie was and how much of an improvement over the last film. I don’t know that you can watch it without having seen the first one, but if you already suffered through the first one, this is a must-see.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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