‘Mamma Mia’ glitters bright and has no time for your cynicism
If it were possible to distill joy into liquid form and inject it directly into the vein, it still wouldn’t be as potent or infectious a high as “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.”
Stuffed to the brim with beautiful people, colors, happy songs and bright emotions, the sequel to the original 2008 “Mamma Mia” is one of the best movie theater experiences you’re likely to find this year, or even this decade. It’s two straight hours of cathartic emotional release, a swirling giddy combination of laughter, tears and dance.
The film opens several years after the first ended — Amanda Seyfried (“Anon”) plays Sophie, reeling from the death of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep, “The Post”). Sophie’s in the process of rebranding the Greek island hotel her mother owned, attempting to return it to its former glory to honor Donna’s memory. The modern-day story is intercut with flashes back to 1979, in which we follow young Donna, played by Lily James (“Darkest Hour”), as she travels across Europe and has a series of brief, but meaningful, love affairs.
Every single person involved with making this movie is at their shining, brightest best. James turns in one of the most charismatic and charming performances in recent memory, full of a vibrant young energy that makes it obvious why these three men would immediately fall in love with her. She’s the kind of actress who makes it nearly impossible to look away when she’s on-screen, dedicating herself with an almost reckless abandon to the glitter and bravado of this movie — as does every single other actor here. There’s a sense pervading the entire movie that everybody is just so happy to be there. And thank God they were, because I am so happy to be here too.
“Do what makes your soul shine,” Julie Walters’s character tells Sophie as she makes what seems like an impossible choice. It’s a gorgeous mantra, one that’s entrenched in the bones of this story. Because for all the sparkles and spectacle, “Mamma Mia” shines at its heart.
I wish I could explain, in words, all the things I loved about “Mamma Mia.” If I could, I’d tell you about Colin Firth (“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”) and Stellan Skarsgård (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) swinging their hips in tandem atop a boat while “Dancing Queen” swells. I’d tell you about “Waterloo” in a French restaurant, and a baguette being used as an electric guitar. I’d tell you about big floppy hats and flowing colorful skirts, or about the way the chemistry between James and Josh Dylan (“Allied”) jumps clear off the screen.
If I had the words, I’d tell you about the world of “Mamma Mia,” the way it’s full of love and bravery, of people who live their lives with passion and romance, never (in the words of fellow Daily staffer Arya Naidu, who spent most of this movie sitting dead straight in her chair with one hand over her heart and another periodically punching me in the arm) settling for anything that doesn’t absolutely thrill them. I don’t really have the words, though, because “Mamma Mia” is not a movie to be written about — it’s meant to be felt.
“Mamma Mia” operates not on any kind of fancy twists of storytelling mechanics, but rather on the rawest levels of catharsis — the viewer is taken by the hand and whisked on a journey through whatever will make them laugh or cry the most in each moment. In the process, “Mamma Mia” develops an emotional language through song and dance that’s clear and well-formed. All the bombast and chaos is tied together by a tight intuitive throughline, coming together to create a story about the passions and tribulations of life, and all the ways love can hurt and heal people. It’s about dancing and motherhood, sex, joy and generations of women supporting and caring for each other.
Kim Gordon once said that “People pay to see others believe in themselves,”* and with “Mamma Mia” that's exactly what we did. There’s a scene near the end that cuts between the young and newly pregnant Sophie singing with her mother’s best friends and young Donna giving birth to Sophie. Donna is all alone in a dilapidated farmhouse, until the kind older Greek woman who owns it comes running to her. She strokes her hair and helps her birth the baby that will grow up to be Sophie, singing on that very same island in tribute to her brave and beautiful mother — and right in that scene I understood that this is a movie about women making the choices to define their lives in ways that excite and fulfill them. They’re looking for love — real love, not the cheap stuff — and real joy, and this story is a celebration of their search as they reach just a little higher.
It’s about pop music, perfect Greek islands, sequined body suits and about how sometimes being a dancing queen means singing your way through a broken heart, performing with your whole body and soul for an empty room. It’s about (literally) falling into the arms of a Scandanavian sailor with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, about parties filled with all the people you love most in the world. It’s about Cher showing up uninvited at the stroke of midnight, blonde and fabulous, and declaring that Sophie has “glitter in her blood.”
It’s the rare movie that lifts your spirits from the feet up, never doubting the innate goodness of its characters or devaluing the sweet and corny happiness it brings into the world. “Mamma Mia” is a magical movie, full of moments so over the top perfect, so heart-wrenchingly happy that I couldn’t stop smiling for its entire runtime. It’s the kind of movie that makes the world a little bit brighter — the kind of movie that makes your soul shine.
*Thank you, again, to Arya Naidu for providing this quote