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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again **1/2

by Ruben Rosario

A buoyant sequel/prequel to the movie adaptation of the smash Broadway musical leans heavily on its stars' undeniable charisma and splashy, expertly choreographed numbers, especially when it runs out of steam story-wise.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

“Mamma Mia!” jived its way into the hearts of moviegoers across the globe back in 2008. It also gained a reputation among critics (and quite a few viewers) for the way it showed off some A-listers' pipes, whether they could actually carry a tune or not. In this regard, this reviewer refused to turn into a show tunes snob. Part of the charm of this disarming adaptation of the popular jukebox musical, driven by ABBA's irresistibly kitschy ditties, was to witness Pierce Brosnan warble his way through “SOS” and “When All Is Said and Done.”

If these are cringe-inducing memories you'd like to erase, fear not, dear readers. It's clear the makers of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” were taking notes. The bouncy, jolly follow-up is slicker, grander and, when it comes to the performers' singing abilities, far more polished. As it turns out, a little too polished. It's a good thing writer-director Ol Parker (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) retains much of the joy that made the original a throwback treat, because he's gone too far in the other direction in stepping up the quality of the singing. There's something not quite right here when almost everyone who breaks out into song sounds like a professional talent.

But the (bell)bottom line is that the new “Mamma Mia!” delivers the goods with panache and showmanship. It brings back some of the more popular songs and even tries out some lesser-known singles. Parker aims to please, and more often than not, he succeeds. More than a mere sequel, it also takes viewers back in time to depict how the characters in the predecessor first met. Those “Godfather Part II” comparisons you may have heard turn out to be accurate, at least structure-wise.

We begin the same way Part 1 started, with Sophie (the esteemed Amanda Seyfried) writing letters while she sings. (This time it's an a cappella cover of “Thank You for the Music.”) She's inviting her three “dads,” Sam (Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth) to the grand opening of her hotel at the Greek villa her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) used to run. I say “used to,” because she's MIA, for reasons that are eventually revealed but which I wouldn't dream of spoiling here.

Meanwhile, Sophie's hubby, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is in New York learning the ropes of the hotel business. But it's clear the distance is emotional as well as physical. It's fortunate she has her hotel manager, Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia, relishing those Latin lover lines) keeping everything afloat. To compound the sense of déjà vu, Donna's best pals Tanya (the ageless Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), drop in for some support and comic relief.

But then Parker, working from a story he collaborated on with “Love Actually” director Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson, turns back the clock to 1979, when younger Donna (“Baby Driver's” Lily James), the valedictorian from her graduating class at Oxford's New College, ends her speech with a spirited rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher” alongside younger Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and younger Rosie (Alexa Davies). Cue the splashy choreography, fluid editing and overhead shots. Lots of overhead shots.

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It's a little disconcerting seeing James, a Brit, playing an American at Oxford, but the “Downton Abbey” star brings her “A” game. As Donna she comes across as the love child of Shailene Woodley and the young Kate Winslet, only with the confidence of Cyd Charisse. Holding their own against this dynamo are Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan and Hugh Skinner as the younger incarnations of Sam, Bill and Harry, respectively. Skinner, in particular, makes an impression as a career-oriented lad trying to convince himself that the only thing that will make him like women is meeting the right one. His bumbling, aw-shucks line delivery are reminiscent of that other Hugh, the one who hooked up with Andie MacDowell back in the mid-1990s.

The film hits a high point early, as Harry makes his case as a lover at a French bistro to the hoppy sounds of “Waterloo.” As this fizzy concoction moves from continental Europe to the Greek isles, “Here We Go Again” continues to shuffle back and forth in time. The narrative becomes increasingly threadbare, so Parker leans heavily on the actors' star quality, as well as the crew's chops in crafting elaborate numbers. The balancing act works, for a while.

But charisma and moviemaking chops can only get you so far, and this “Mamma Mia!” prequel/sequel runs out of juice about 30 minutes early. The film dawdles when it should zip. What keeps this poky, gang's-all-here romp chugging along is an undercurrent of melancholy coursing beneath the sunny surface. The film is at its best when it shows how we can pick ourselves off the ground when calamity knocks you down. Lest this reviewer gives in to temptation and starts belting out “Chiquitita,” suffice it to say that this particular's song's lyrics resonate strongly here, even though it wasn't turned into a musical number in the sequel. In this song, ABBA's Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad embody an older woman trying to cheer up a younger woman who's nursing a broken heart. The characters in the new “Mamma Mia!” carry their own personal pain, and the film is at its strongest when it uses its unflappable joy to combat their sadness while refusing to shy away from their suffering. Case in point is the tender flourish of magical realism that closes the film.

Those emotions ring true even when this somewhat overproduced sequel threatens to drown in its production values. Some viewers might be disappointed that Cher, making a showy eleventh-hour entrance as Donna's mom, has limited screen time. But she's so stiff in the few scenes she's in that I felt relieved her role wasn't more substantial. But even as the Oscar winner seems to be hampered by her Botoxed appearance, she still serves up a rendition of “Fernando” that's ready for the airwaves. Much like the rest of the movie, she makes you smile even as you wish she'd rein in the spectacle.

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