Review: Mamma Mia 2
Words by Fred Pryce
Winter’s come and gone, and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again has drifted through theatres like a warm summer breeze, casually earning hundreds of millions of dollars, and making any nay-sayers seem like complete snobs. And maybe the best time to discuss it is now - after all the glitter and sequins have finally been cleared from the air. Above all, it proves the need for a different type of blockbuster — big-budget movies that focus on women, including older women, that appeal to those not enthused by the glut of superhero movies, or just for fans of the glossy musicals that Hollywood seemingly stopped making until recently. The original Mamma Mia, written by Catherine Johnson, was a smash-hit, becoming the highest-grossing movie ever directed by a woman at the time. This new installation written and directed by Ol Parker, notably male, promised to return to the Greek hotel, this time following the adventures of a younger Donna as she has flings across Europe and discovers the island’s beauty for the first time. It’s the sort of (literally) by-the-numbers origin story Hollywood churns out regularly, as movies — and just like jokes, they clearly become more entertaining if you keep explaining over and over again. But should I just sit back with a glass of bubbly wearing my favourite cardigan and enjoy the ride, or complain and become (as The Onion’s review put it) ”a miserable killjoy who slogs through life recoiling at anything remotely joyful or upbeat in the world”? Well...
The first movie, despite -- everything, had a warm and genuine earnestness, a sense of fun and female friendship that brushed away your inhibitions and let you relax into its tacky embrace. And despite being big and cheesy, it was moving, and explored a mother-daughter relationship that was properly felt. This movie is missing that something, and without that heart and soul, watching it is like being blasted by a freezing wind tunnel, an overwhelming experience that sets your teeth on edge. It looks and feels perfunctory, a step-by-step recreation of events that never needed to be more than wistful anecdotes spoken in the original instalment. Rather than the ABBA songs emerging somewhat organically from the crisscrossing emotional paths of the first, here the remaining dregs (and some repeat efforts) creak painfully to life in the most literal sense possible. Oh, they want to do Waterloo again? How about set in a French restaurant, complete with a Napoleon costume. When I Kissed the Teacher? Easy, just kiss the teacher! No amount of cutesy musical transitions can hide how forced the changing scenery of Here We Go Again feels in comparison. The actors they found to play younger versions of characters are all extremely talented, but do feel distinctly like copies, down to the hairstyles unchanged in 40 years. The young dads were also, expectedly, far less attractive than their older counterparts, with the stammering Colin Firth impression being the most noticeable downgrade. It’s as if the shallow friends from Muriel’s Wedding performed the ABBA dance routine, rather than Muriel and Rhonda - pretty and well-rehearsed maybe, but still plastic.
That is not to say the movie is universally bad, or free of raucous enjoyment (a meet-cute set over calming down a stallion during a storm is some great camp). Notably, the last 20 minutes, initiated by Firth and Stellan Skarsgard sailing in on party boats like a dads ex machina, are a huge step up. They dance, they joke, and Cher sweeps in for a cameo just slightly too short to be glorious, even if her presence is always welcome. And the climax, including an all-in number that opens the credits, manages to be emotionally involving despite the lack of build-up towards it, capturing the real emotions beneath the poppiness of ABBA that make their songs so enduringly popular. It just makes you wish for a movie that did so much more to progress what it already had, rather than re-tread what was already better conveyed through a single smile from Meryl Streep. Relentless energy can never fully replace even a tiny spark of originality.
Though I’m sure if I went back and watched again, I could start to process the MIDI-backing-tracked horrors a bit more, and perhaps even enjoy myself, I don’t think it’s ever a wise move to let even the poppiest of culture slide by uncriticised. There is some joy to be found in the news that Mamma Mia got unnecessarily sequel-ized in the first place, although given how many less successful movies got that treatment instantly, you have to wonder what took them so long (what even is Insidious: The Last Key? Is The Death Cure a good or bad thing in the Maze Runner universe? What’s a Maze Runner?). And even though there’s a take-what-you-can-get attitude with blockbusters that aren’t just the blandest of the mass-appeal mind-set, I think we need to demand better from even the frothiest of musicals, or we’re never going to get better. Book Club, a comedy focusing on older women finding romance, has done gangbuster business despite being often hilariously inept, a sign of the dismal state of offerings for non-youth demographics. And when big budget movies are almost always sequels and reboots, and female-led ones only make up a fraction of those (Ocean’s 8, Tomb Raider… Fifty Shades Freed), a push for creativity and originality seems well overdue. Don’t call me a snob, just call me disappointed.