This article contains spoilers for the 2018 film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
I worked in a movie theater when the original Mamma Mia! came out and it was the worst week of my life. ABBA makes a kind of infectious, parasitic worm-flavor of music that burrows deep in your head and doesn’t leave. Building that up over seven nights of performances, each one a sold-out house filled with mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and granddaughters, meant I had “Money, Money, Money” playing on a loop until 2017, just in time for Universal to drop the big bombshell: there’s going to be a sequel.
A sequel to Mamma Mia! was always going to feel like a cash-grab. The original story was fine. It didn’t leave a lot of unanswered questions besides the big one – who is Sophie’s father? – and it was clear that wasn’t the kind of question you were supposed to answer. Weird, then, that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes at least far enough to narrow it down to two. It’s definitely not Harry.
Part of the fun of Mamma Mia! is that it is, at its heart, a story about family. Well, no, at its heart its an excuse to sing ABBA songs with a backing orchestra instead of an electric keyboard, but maybe at its kidneys its a story about family. Family isn’t just your blood relations: it’s the people that care about you.
In Mamma Mia!, we learn that Donna, the mother of 20-year-old bride Sophie, came to the island of Kalokairi sometime in her own 20s. There, she met three young men: architect Sam, adventurer Bill, and musician Harry. She also is a caretaker for an elderly woman, also named Sophie, who is presumed to be Donna’s daughter Sophie’s namesake. Sophie is the person who leaves Donna the money to restore the villa that becomes the hotel that Donna is running in Mamma Mia!. Sophie is also Bill’s great-aunt. At some point, Donna sleeps with Sam, and at another she sleeps with Bill, and at another she sleeps with Harry. Any of them, Mamma Mia! says, could be Sophie’s dad. But Donna – who raised Sophie alone because (a) her mother (Sophie’s grandmother) was a strict Catholic and disowned Donna for having a child out of wedlock and (b) Donna obviously didn’t know who Sophie’s father was – objects to the whole idea of having the Three Dads around until they come to the conclusion that they will each be one-third her dad because, again, family isn’t just your blood relations: it’s the people that care about you.
Now, here’s the Here We Go Again version of that paragraph.
In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, we learn that Donna, the mother of 20-year-old bride Sophie, came to the island of Kalokairi sometime in her own 20s. There, she met three young men: architect Sam, adventurer Bill, and musician Harry. She
also is a caretaker for an elderly woman breaks into a house and steals a horse, believing for some reason that the house and horse are abandoned, and she sort of lives there but also lives with Sam, who has a cottage in the hills, and it is later revealed that the house belongs to a woman also named Sophie, who is presumed to be Donna’s daughter Sophie’s namesake is the only person to help Donna give birth to baby Sophie so she sure as hell better be baby Sophie’s namesake. Sophie is the person who leaves Donna the money to restore the just gives Donna the villa because she’s American and cute and maybe that’s enough?? that becomes the hotel that Donna is running in Mamma Mia! Daughter Sophie has basically completely rebuilt as a destination retreat for millionaires in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, presumably thanks to her dad’s fancy architect money because Sam is definitely her dad but also Sam is her legal step-father, having married Donna in Mamma Mia! Oh, right, Old Lady Sophie is also Bill’s great-aunt. At some point, A few hours after meeting him, Donna sleeps with Sam, and at another and after Sam abandons her to return to his fiance, she sleeps with Bill, and at another and this all happens after she sleeps with Harry, once, a little over a week earlier. Any of them, Mamma Mia! says, could be Sam is Sophie’s dad. She appears to sleep with Sam several times, then sleeps with Bill once, then gets morning sickness. It usually takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks for morning sickness to kick in, which raises the possibility its none of them, but Sam fits in the best. Based on what seems to be the elapsed timeline, Sam and Donna first sleep together about two weeks before she gets sick for the first time. Again, this is technically after Harry, but its not Harry. Watch the movie. It’s not Harry. But Donna – who raised Sophie alone because (a) her mother (Sophie’s grandmother) was a strict Catholic and disowned Donna for having a child out of wedlock and Cher, and (b) Donna obviously didn’t know who Sophie’s father was super hoped it wasn’t Sam – objects to the whole idea of having the Three Dads around until they come to the conclusion that they will each be one-third her dad because, again, family isn’t just your blood relations: it’s the people that care about you.
There are a lot of plot changes but none of them are as shocking as just how clear it is that Pierce Brosnan’s Sam is most definitely Sophie’s father. There are a lot of other holes (Donna spends maybe 24 hours with Harry, how did she even remember enough about him for Sophie to track him down twenty years later? Why was Cher involved in the Cuban Revolution? Is revolutionary Fernando really Donna’s father? That would make Donna… 45 at the time of her death, which is really, really sad) but none of them carry the same weight as the one that tears down the “we don’t need to know” resolution of Mamma Mia!
It really forces us to consider who this movie is for. By killing off the central character of the first movie – the likable and, uh, target demographic-representative Meryl Streep – what were the writers hoping to accomplish? Missing is the mania of Voulez-Vous, which provided a brief but important level of seriousness and depth to what was otherwise a campy musical romp. In its place, Here We Go Again tries to sell a series of stripped-down ABBA covers, hoping to ape the stripped-down acoustic tone of a coffeehouse but, you know, while still doing ABBA covers.
And they are covers. The first movie does a better job convincing us that there’s something original to the songs, but in Here We Go Again, the rug is pulled out from under us. If Donna’s mother can perform “Super Trouper,” that either means she stole it from her daughter or that her daughter’s big song moment in Mamma Mia! is just a cover of her estranged mother’s hit, which makes it so much sadder. Donna singing “Mamma Mia” in Mamma Mia! is less authentic because she’s literally reprising a moment she had twenty years earlier.
The whole thing might be a lot more digestible if it stood alone. It can’t stand alone, though. It tells half of a story we already know, like Mamma Mia! The Phantom Menace, and it can’t escape from the shadow of a better written older sister. Worse, when it does try to escape, it changes a continuity in ways that are upsetting. We see Donna’s memories of Sam, Harry, and Bill in the original film. Then, we meet them in Here We Go Again and they’re nothing like she remembered. What was she remembering? She is so hopeful and so confident at the end of Here We Go Again but we know that by the start of Mamma Mia! twenty years later her life is falling apart. And we know by the end of Mamma Mia! that she’s reunited with Sam and beginning a new chapter, but by the start of Here We Go Again, just a five year in-universe gap, she’s died. What happened?
I would be a movie crimester if I didn’t point out that Lily James, Jessica Keenan Wynn, and Alexa Davies do an incredible job as the younger versions of the characters of Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Dame Julie Walters. They frequently pick the movie up and give it the glimmers of light it needs to be watchable. It is watchable. Wynn and Davies have real chemistry together, matching and maybe even besting Baranski and Walters. The story of the three of them, the Dynamos, could have carried a much better movie beyond the dreary lands of the romantic comedy musical and into something genuine, heartfelt, and worth watching.