The day 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' broke me

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 8/3/18 2:05am

The pitch meeting for “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” (artistic liberties taken):

Producer One: You guys ever seen “The Godfather Part II”?

Other Producers: Um … yeah …

Producer One: Okay. Well, we need to do that … but with “Mamma Mia!”

It’s been a full 10 years since the release of the first “Mamma Mia!,” itself an adaption of the beloved 1999 jukebox musical constructed entirely out of ABBA songs. Back in 2008, critics felt no shame ripping the film to shreds. No one could sing, no one could dance, the songs were shoehorned into the story, etc. The film found its cult following amongst a very select audience, and everyone parted ways. Those who loathed it seemed happy to let it fade into the fabric of forgotten pop culture, while those who loved it were content to do so in private.

With that in mind, how on Earth did we get “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”? Or, more precisely, how could The Guardian publish an opinion piece titled “Here we go again: how critics learned to stop worrying and love Mamma Mia!” in response to this sequel without a hint of irony anywhere in sight? What changed — the film or us? Well, arguably both.

On the one hand, the detractors of the first “Mamma Mia!” were never wholly wrong in their criticisms. Having watched it for the first time mere days ago, I can safely say that it is not a “good” film by almost any widely accepted critical definition. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it. The singing, dancing, directing and storyline may be bad, but they’re a “so-bad-it’s-good” kind of bad. Conversely, “Here We Go Again” is legitimately good, at least on a technical level. Whereas the first film always felt like an uneasy marriage between a stage play and a music video, the sequel feels properly cinematic. The cinematography, the choreography, the editing, the directing — it’s all a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears.

Likewise, the screenplay is tighter and more self-aware. For those who haven’t heard, Meryl Streep, America’s favorite actor and the unequivocal headliner of the first film, isn’t in the sequel all that much as beleaguered hotel-owner Donna Sheridan. In fact, she barely has five minutes of total screen time. While it sounds to me like there were some suspicious behind-the-scenes factors at play, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Her absence necessitates the film’s most ingenious creative choice. Inspired — I’m not even joking — by “The Godfather Part II,” the film parallels the adventures of young Donna in 1979 with the efforts of Sophie and her three fathers (Pierce Brosnan’s Sam Carmichael, Colin Firth’s Harry Bright and Stellan Skarsgård’s Bill Anderson) in the present day to honor Donna, who is now dead. The editing cleverly mirrors Sophie’s and Donna’s stories, resulting in some surprisingly emotional moments.

The singing and dancing from the lead actors may not be much better, but it really doesn’t matter. All the returners seem more comfortable in their roles, whereas the younger actors stay true to the essence of their older counterparts while still bringing something new to those characters. Lily James, in particular, steals the show as young Donna. You know things have taken an unusual turn for the better when someone manages to play a character better than Meryl Streep.

Nevertheless, it would be a blatant falsehood to pretend that the critical turnaround can only be attributed to the improvements from the first film to the second. As mentioned earlier, it’s been ten years since the original. Perhaps in that time we’ve come to realize all the things “Mamma Mia!” has been doing right all along, and thus why we need it in this specific cultural moment. It’s not just that the franchise has been subversively feminist all along; its sex positivity and belief in the power of sisterhood are both testaments to that fact. Beyond that, the film’s worldview is utopic, imagining a universe wherein humanity is actually — and I know this sounds crazy — nice to itself. In any other franchise, Sophie’s three potential fathers would inevitably engage in a fight about the legitimacy of their parental claims, all simply to assert their masculinity. Not only does “Mamma Mia!” never include such a scene, but it never even lets you consider the possibility. As the sequel proves, the worldbuilding assumption of this franchise is that these men would just become best friends. Likewise, not only does the franchise actively support non-heteronormative and interracial relationships, but it imagines a world where no one would question such pairings.

Yet none of this fully explains why “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” left me a sobbing mess. I almost never cry during films. But this one broke me. And as much as I admire its craft and its politics, that isn’t what sent me over the edge. “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is like a Disney film in that it’s run on emotions, not logic. The plot may be superior to the first film, the integration of the songs may be smoother, but it’s still kind of a mess. None of that matters. If that’s what you’re worrying about while watching the film, then you might as well walk out and ask for a refund. For everyone else, this film will hijack your emotions for two hours.

To be clear, that isn’t to say that the emotional impact of the film is entirely divorced from the filmmaking or the politics. Much of my reaction was a direct result of the aforementioned dual structure. To illustrate, there is a point early in the film where Pierce Brosnan’s Sam does a quiet reprise of “SOS” while looking at pictures of Donna when she was younger. In any other film, that scene would still make sense. We wouldn’t need any dialogue, for example, to understand that this woman is Donna from years ago. But, thanks to the structure of this film, we know young Donna by the time he pulls out those pictures. We’ve met Lily James as this character. Thus, the scene’s impact is something else entirely. We aren’t watching a character mourn; we’re mourning with him.

To be clear, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is ridiculous. But it knows this. It cherishes that fact. And I’d argue that you should too because if you do, you’ll find it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug. Come for the indestructible ABBA songs, stay for the open, broken weeping. It’s all worth it.