Would it be in the interest of full disclosure or spoiling some of the fun to reveal whether Meryl Streep is alive or not in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again? The cast has promised she is "very much a part" of the sequel, but her ABBA-singing alter ego, Donna, has also been absent from most of the trailers and is only referred to in the past tense. I'm opting for the former -- I'm telling -- only because her fate is revealed at the start of the movie and it seems impossible to discuss the goings on otherwise.
She's dead, having passed away one year before the events of the sequel. (We never do find out how Donna died.) In honor of her late mother, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is re-opening the Bella Donna Hotel, with a framed promotional photograph of Streep from the first film hanging in the lobby in dedication. Following a split from Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie finds herself in over her head as she prepares for the grand opening, for which she's invited her three fathers, Harry, Sam and Bill (Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgård, respectively), and the remaining Dynamos (played by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters).
Meanwhile, backward in time, in 1989, Donna (Cinderella's Lily James) is just graduating from Oxford and, in true Dynamo fashion, dons platform boots and a feathered boa for a flash mob with her best friends, the skittish Rosie (Alexa Davies) and brash Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). Donna wants to travel the world and sets out to do just that, only to meets stuffy virgin Harry (Hugh Skinner), suave skipper Bill (Josh Dylan) and true love Sam (Jeremy Irvine), each of whom gets a duet with Donna and, sooner or later, a roll in the hay.
Yet, Here We Go Again isn't so much a sequel or a prequel but an expansion of canon, with a musical number thrown in every few minutes for good measure. The movie seems to exist to provide answers to questions I'm not sure need answering: Like, why Donna ended up on the Greek island of Kalokairi. Or how she came to own her first pair of overalls. The portions of the movie set in the present essentially exist only as a framework to get to those flashbacks.
Unlike the original Mamma Mia!, which had a quirky premise that drove the plot and jukebox performances -- that is: Sophie inviting three men to the island to find out who her father is -- there really is no through line here. It's a bit nutty, because if you've seen any previews, you likely have a completely distorted idea of how the movie is structured. I suppose this is a spoiler by way of providing context, but Sophie doesn't find out she is pregnant until the very end of the movie. What a difference it would make had she found out at the onset and her journey to motherhood, with life lessons passed down from the Dynamos, was what connected her to Donna's past and inspired the flashbacks.
Anyway, that's not to say there isn't plenty to enjoy here. An alternative to the above would have been to make a proper prequel -- the younger cast are great, especially James, in the unenviable position of being compared to Streep -- but that would mean forsaking A-list talent like Brosnan, Firth and Baranski, among others, who are also great! You won't hear me complaining about Baranski traipsing around in a caftan and purring, "Be still my beating vagina." Music-wise, Here We Go Again does retread some of the same ground as the first -- "Mamma Mia," naturally, "Super Trouper" and "I Have a Dream" are a few of tracks that get repeated -- but the song and dance numbers are all zany fun, best when they're big and ridiculous and full of joy. Writer-director Ol Parker, taking the reins from original helmer Phyllida Lloyd, appears to understand that, and his movie is cheesy and colorful and everybody is acting for the back of the theater. Which is not only what we expect from a Mamma Mia! movie, it's what we want.
And then there's Meryl, as promised. I won't reveal exactly how, but she reappears in the final minutes of the movie for one song -- consult the soundtrack's tracklist to see which song and with whom she sings -- and the big, all-hands-on-deck number running over the credits. By the time she pops up, mamma mia! It's good to see her, feathered and spandexed and shimmying alongside Cher. It's also a reminder of how essential she was to what made the first film work, and the major presence missing from the previous hour and forty-something minutes. As for Cher, mind-bogglingly cast as Meryl Streep's mother, she is bewigged and campy and not at all essential to the story. She's an extra sprinkle of ridiculousness, and I'm happy to have her -- which might just be the best way to describe Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, too.
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