Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★½

"Life is short. The world is wide." ~ Young Donna

I saw this on the big screen because I really loved the 2008 original, plus ABBA songs sound terrific in cinema-quality sound. Although most of the cast returned to reprise their roles here, sadly the original female director passed the megaphone on to English writer-director Ol Parker, whose debut film ("Imagine Me & You," 2005) left me pretty cold, so I was just guardedly optimistic going into this.

To begin, it's not a bad sequel at all. There's complete continuity with where the previous film ended, five years earlier. Hotelier Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), owner of the Villa Donna on the the Greek island of Kalokairi, has passed away and her now married daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has taken on the task of completing renovations and reopening the hotel as her mother would have wanted.

Living on the hotel grounds is retired architect, now widower Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), Sophie's #1 father who is still grieving for Donna, as well as the hotel manager Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia), who makes sure everything is set up perfectly for the reopening of the property under its new name, The Hotel Bella Donna. Conspicuously absent, however, is Sophie's husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is in New York for a six-month training in hotel management.

Sophie sends out invitations to all of the folks who attended her mother's marriage to Sam except her Grandmother Ruby Sheridan (Cher), a Las Vegas singer who hasn't been around in the 25 years since Sophie's birth. She did, however, invite father #2, the Swedish sailor and travel writer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård), and #3, British banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth).

Sadly, both Bill and Harry are busy and send their regrets as does Sky, who drops the additional bomb that he's been asked to take a fulltime position by a major New York hotel. That casts a cloud not only over the future of the Greek hotel but also the couple's marriage. A lovely rendition of ABBA's "One Of Us" describes the situation perfectly.

On a brighter note, the first two arrivals for the opening, coming a full day early, are Donna's best friends, former classmates and 'Dynamo' singing partners: the wealthy three-time divorcee Tanya Chesham-Leigh (Christine Baranski) and the unmarried fun-loving writer Rosie Lulligan (Julie Walters). Let the party (and the flashbacks) begin!


**** CAUTION - POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ****

Indeed, there's not much plot here in a traditional sense. The party is almost wiped out by a storm, and only a bit of serendipity saves it. Much of the footage is devoted to telling Donna's backstory, from her graduation in 1979 through her European pilgrimage to Kalokairi, including her meeting the three potential papas and how she became the owner of the remote but magical hotel.

For this time travel into the past, a whole new cast is required. Lily James does a very fine job as Young Donna. Handsome, talented as singers but less convincing as actors are her three lovers: Hugh Skinner as Young Harry met in France, Josh Dylan as Young Bill met en route to the island, and Jeremy Irvine as Young Sam met on the island. More proficient on screen are the women who play Young Donna's BFFs -- Jessica Keenan Wynn as Young Tanya and Alexa Davies as Young Rosie.

Others in the cast include Omid Djalili as the hilarious Greek customs officer, Maria Vacratsis as the Greek bar owner Sofia who provides the villa to Donna, Panos Mouzourakis as Sofia's musician son Lazaros, and Gerard Monaco as the fisherman Alexio, whom Bill and Donna helped claim his future wife Apollonia, played by Anna Antoniades. In cameos, look for real life ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson as an Oxford professor and the "Waterloo" piano player, respectively.

My favorite number here was the theme song, "Mamma Mia," performed by the young Dynamos in Sofia's bar just after Sam dumped Donna and before Bill returned to woo her, much to the disappointment of Rosie, who took an immediate fancy to the Swede. At age 72, Cher is still far and away the best vocalist here, and her "Fernando" rendition is something of a show stopper.

For humor, nobody tops Walters, especially in combo with Baranski. And although some of the choreography is La-La-Land-ishly over-the-top, it works all right in the context of this being a musical, with more emphasis on vocals than dance steps. Mercifully, Brosnan's singing is very limited.

What I really missed from the original was the Greek chorus and any sense of this actually taking place in Greece. I think there is more French spoken than any language other than English. We get a tiny look at some food, but it's limited to familiar dishes like moussaka and baklava. And there's no Greek dancing, no bouzouki music, no breaking of plates, and only one peasant woman with a stack of firewood on her head who looks like she stepped onto the wrong set.

In short, Parker shows respect only for the original story and characters, not for the adventure that motivated Donna to love and want to live forever in a foreign land. The magical spark is missing. And that's a shame. I think what I regretted most was that Parker never caused me to shed a tear, and that's so easy when dealing with nostalgic ABBA songs and themes like abandonment, loneliness and reunion. I liked this. I just wanted to like it a lot more.

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