Sometimes a film's saving grace is that it doesn't even contemplate taking itself seriously. Almost everything about the sequel to the 2008 jukebox musical hit Mamma Mia! is ridiculous, and only the ABBA-fueled numbers and costumes show evidence of much artistry or forethought. But longish stretches of the movie are still infectiously fun. This is a film that can get away with casting Cher (born 1946) and Meryl Streep (born 1949) as mother and daughter, respectively, because it couldn't care less about realism.
Who needs reality on a sunny Greek island, anyway? seems to be the general attitude of this movie, directed by Ol Parker (replacing Phyllida Lloyd). And who needs a story? While the first movie, based on the stage musical, was a midlife rom-com full of farcical twists and turns, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again shambles back and forth between present and past, functioning as half sequel and half prequel.
Since Meryl Streep opted not to reprise her starring role as free-spirited disco queen Donna, the sequel's ostensible protagonist is Donna's daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is reopening her mother's inn on the island of Kalokairi just as she reaches a crisis in her long-distance relationship with her husband (Dominic Cooper). The celebration is also menaced by a storm and the likelihood that two of Sophie's three possible fathers (Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) won't show.
None of these threats generates much tension, partly because we know they'll be quickly resolved and partly because Sophie is a paper-thin character. (Her mom's two besties [Julie Walters and Christine Baranski], who are way more entertaining, don't get enough screen time.) To distract us from this problem, the film offers flashbacks in which Lily James plays the young Donna, and we gawk at outrageous '70s fashion and learn how (if still not by whom) Sophie was conceived.
Unfortunately, this split structure means that the older actors, the real strength of this movie, are featured considerably less than their younger counterparts. It's difficult to get excited about James and her nigh-on-indistinguishable swains smiling through bad dialogue and slapstick pratfalls when we could be watching Walters and Baranski trading barbs, or Firth, Skarsgård and Pierce Brosnan goofing off like high school thespians — a genuine pleasure, if a cheap one.
Of course, whenever an exuberant pop number starts, the bland casting and poor characterization cease to matter. While the old Hollywood-style choreography isn't exactly groundbreaking, it's never less than lively and colorful. This is the kind of movie shameless enough to name a supporting character Fernando (Andy Garcia) to set up a rendition of "Fernando" — sung by a very special guest star. The payoff moment is so deliriously absurd that it draws laughs from the audience, but they're laughs of delight.
In short, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the Guardians of the Galaxy of musicals: at its best when it embraces the silliness. "You think too much, you get unhappy" is the advice young Donna gets from an earthy Greek bar singer, and Parker and his cowriters and cast appear to have taken that to heart. Cher fits right into this universe, giving acerbic delivery to some of the script's funniest lines.
When the movie does pull off one surprisingly poignant moment, without glitter, full orchestration or standard tear-jerking tactics, it's a pleasant surprise. The characters may not be deep or even believable, but in its glitzy, variety-show way, the film offers a full-throated celebration of the mother-daughter bond. It's a fine intergenerational folly for a summer's day.