Probably it will surprise nobody to know that Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again occupies basically the same place in the world as the original Mamma Mia. It is an excuse for some moderately famous faces to have a wonderful time singing the cheesiest songs in the world and hanging out on a Greek island, and for audiences around the world to have a jolly time watching them.
I’m not convinced that Mamma Mia actually needed a sequel, but the profit-driven logics of late capitalism are inescapable, and so here we are.
The story opens ten years after the events of the first film. Donna has died recently, in a non-specific manner. Her daughter Sophie is about to open the hotel that was Donna’s dream, while having some romantic drama with her hunky husband Skye, who wants to take a permanent job in America, which is not part of Sophie’s life plans at all, at all. Meanwhile, in a series of flashbacks, we learn how Sophie came to have three fathers – that is, how Young Donna slept with three different men around the same time and ended up pregnant.
Like its predecessor, Here We Go Again wants to be a kind film, a film that embraces the wide weird quirkiness of humanity and sings “I Have a Dream” softly into its ear like a lullaby. The first film is one that doesn’t judge its female heroine for being a single mother with a sexual past; it’s one that embraces the possibility of having multiple fathers; one where an old woman flings aside her burden to go join in a Bacchanalian parade of women all singing “Dancing Queen”. It even has a gay character. Like, it’s a soft-focus, peace-and-love kind of inclusivity, but even that was unusual in 2008: a blockbuster film that actually treated women like people with their own subjectivities and messy histories and agency.
It’s 2018 now. Things have moved on a bit. Here We Go Again does stuff that maybe looks a bit more radical, but the actual narrative structure doesn’t bear it out. Structurally, it’s a much more conservative story than the first film was.
A micro-example: in the opening number it’s revealed that Donna is bi. Yay, bi representation! Sadly, the opening number is “When I Kissed the Teacher”, and it appears that Young Donna had a relationship with a female tutor at Oxford. Which everyone is fine about, because free love, youthful experimentation, whatever, yay, colourful costumes and fabulous dance moves! Like. Not to be a party pooper, but can we maybe not trivialise inappropriate teacher-pupil relationships in the same breath as announcing that a beloved character is queer? K. Thanks.
Later on, there’s a big dance scene (choreographed to “Waterloo”, no less), which features a wheelchair user and a gay couple among many others. These are nice touches! But they are only touches. These are only backing dancers. It’s not like there are any disabled characters with speaking lines; and as for queer representation, well, we hear nothing else about Donna’s queerness, and the only nod to Harry’s sexuality is a brief flirtation with a fisherman.
The big structural problem with the film, though, is how much emphasis it places on the men in Donna and Sophie’s lives. To recap, the first film is very much about a mother and a daughter (again, think about how unusual it is to watch a mainstream film about mothers and daughters). Both Donna and Sophie are constantly surrounded by female friends who advise them, support them, sing and dance with them. Think of that rendition of “Dancing Queen” again: these are women embracing their femininity, and each other. The men of the film are very much interlopers; not unwelcome, but vaguely out of place.
Whereas in Here We Go Again, the focus is squarely on Donna and Sophie’s relationships with men. It’s interested not in the bond between Donna and Sophie, but in Donna’s three lovers, in Sophie and Skye’s marriage, in Sophie and her fathers. Donna’s old friends are there, but their roles are very much downplayed (in fact, Young Donna literally abandons her friends to go travelling and sleep with strange men); Sophie’s female friends are nowhere to be seen. When a new female character does turn up, it’s Cher, at the end of the film, playing a stereotypically uninterested grandmother who only relaxes when she runs across an old flame (whose name is, yes, Fernando).
I don’t want to pretend that Here We Go Again isn’t fun, because it kind of is. It makes for a cheerful evening out. It’s so relentlessly feelgood that you actively ignore its regressive politics. But I wouldn’t want to see it again; I think the shine would wear off pretty quickly.