Mild spoilers ahead for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
Watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again feels like riding a really fast roller coaster while drunk on frosé: It doesn't quite make sense, you can't remember why or when you decided to join in, or even how, but you're fully committed and laughing and screaming at the top of your lungs.
The aptly named sequel, directed by Ol Parker, hits theaters exactly 10 years after the original. It's a madcap origin story that somehow repeats the same ABBA hits (plus some deep cuts) and delivers on even more thrills. The dance routines are bigger, the costumes are flashier, the men are even more enthusiastic, and there's Cher! Everything screams over the top.
Split into two timelines, the story follows the present-day struggles of Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) as she tries to cope with mother Donna's (Meryl Streep) death by fulfilling her dream of opening a lavish hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi. As Sophie's grand opening party plans are thwarted by relationship setbacks, no-shows, and a very big storm, we flash back periodically to the story of how Donna ended up as a single mother on the island where everybody knows ABBA lyrics by heart.
It's 1979, and Donna Sheridan (Lily James) is graduating from Oxford University. In true Donna fashion, she delivers her valedictorian speech by throwing off her gown, exposing gold lame platform boots and serenading her fellow students with "When I Kissed The Teacher," joined onstage by the two other members of Donna and the Dynamos, Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn, who does a truly fantastic Christine Baranski impression), and Rosie (Alexa Davies).
After the show, Donna expresses her desire for adventure, and sets off on a journey that will take her from Paris to Greece, and land her in the arms of Young Harry (Hugh Skinner, the best casting decision in the film), Young Bill (Josh Dylan), and Young Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Sophie's future three dads.
What elevated the original Mamma Mia from a loopy variety show into a generation's cult classic was the presence of seriously established film stars. I mean, who wouldn't want to see Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Julie Walters sing and dance together? But that poses a major hurdle for the sequel, in having to cast younger versions of these iconic performers who embody the characters without feeling intimidated, not to mention killing off the main character. And what's crazy is that it succeeds. Lily James is so energetic and fun that she feels like the most true version of Donna, rather than a Meryl Streep impression. Her love interests each manage to capture a kernel of the charms of their older versions, making them instantly recognizable and appealing (although not casting Bill Skarsgard as Young Bill feels like a HUGE missed opportunity).
As for the original cast, they are just so happy to lean into the madness that it's infectious. Firth, bless him, is living his best life throughout. (All of the men are actually — it's a delight to see the James Bond of my childhood completely give in to the fact that he's going to look and sound lame, and just have a ball.) Baranski leans into her BDE like it's her job, and her scenes with Walters steal the show right from under Seyfried, who does her best to keep up but ends up being bulldozed by the sheer amount of lady power exuded from the pair. Her scenes with Dominic Cooper are positively snoozy compared to the party that's going on around them.
Still, the whole thing is tinged with an undertone of sadness: We know that in the end, Donna will die before she sees her grandchild born, and that her friends and loved ones will miss her to the point of tearing up every time they hear her name. It's a dose of reality that anchors what would otherwise be just a frivolous romp into something with a deeper emotional pull.
The thing about Mamma Mia 2 is that it feels less like a movie, and more like a live musical at which you are an active participant. When Cher, who technically plays Donna's mother but is actually just Cher, showed up to sing "Fernando," the audience howled, as they did every time a very suave Andy Garcia appeared on screen. And together? Guard your eardrums.
That feeling translates even into the film's editing: When Sophie sings "One of Us," about a fight she's having with Sky (Cooper), who's in New York, the camera transitions from one to the other using objects (a mirror they both are passing in front of, a picture frame they both own), and a revolving wall that feels more like a theater mechanism than a movie set.
You could point out that the plot is inane, and so low stakes as to be comical (the worst thing to happen is a big storm that trashes Sophie's welcome decorations); that the mens' singing is truly sub-par when compared to the women's; and that Donna's friends (younger and older versions alike) are much more interesting and complex yet constantly have to take back seat to her lush blonde curls. But honestly, you'd be missing out, and depriving yourself of a fun, fizzy summer pleasure.
In the end, Mamma Mia 2 is perfectly described in its best number, a completely bonkers version of "Waterloo" that is forever tattooed in my brain. You, like Napoleon, must surrender; you couldn't escape if you wanted to.