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'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again' review: Sequel is weaker than the original

Young Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn), left, Young

 Young Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn), left, Young Donna (Lily James) and Young Rosie (Alexa Davies) in "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again."  Photo Credit: Universal Studios/Jonathan Prime

PLOT On a romantic Greek island, a young woman reopens her late mother’s hotel.

CAST Amanda Seyfried, Cher, Meryl Streep

RATED PG-13 (racy talk and suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:54

BOTTOM LINE Weaker in voice and spirit even than the original.

For some, “Mamma Mia!,” the ABBA jukebox musical of 2008, felt like a charming backyard play that happened to be studded with top stars and hit songs. For others, it felt like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard. Both audiences will probably find the sequel, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” aptly titled.

“Here We Go Again” presents the parallel stories of young Donna (Lily James), the free-spirited product of the 1970s played by Meryl Streep in the first film, and her now-grown daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, reprising her role). Through flashbacks, we see Donna meet the three men who might be Sophie’s father (played as grown men by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard), while in the present day Sophie struggles to reopen her late mother’s inn on the Greek island of Kalokairi. That’s right, Streep’s Donna is dead (though she’ll still make an appearance).

The first musical number, sung by Donna during her graduation from Oxford, is “When I Kissed the Teacher.” That ostensibly rebellious song strikes an off note in this #MeToo moment, and the careful change of pronouns (the teacher is now a “she”) doesn’t help. The rest of the film’s choices are equally wrongheaded (platform heels and feather boas, in 1979?), though less socially tone deaf.

The new cast is a mixed bag. James’ Donna seems a fairly shallow creature whose sexual freedom looks like fickleness; her two feisty friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies as young versions of Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, respectively) are far more appealing. Of the young actors who play Sophie’s possible fathers, only Hugh Skinner stands out with his decent Firth impression. And in what is becoming a tradition, their singing is decidedly hit-and-miss.

Because the original film already reshuffled ABBA’s best-selling “Gold” compilation, this sequel must dig down into the complete box set. Thanks to the songwriting chops of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, even these lesser-known tracks prove sturdy. (“My Love My Life,” sung by Streep’s Donna from the great beyond, is surprisingly poignant.) Let’s face it, though: These are not The Hits. The pleasurable crackles of song recognition that the first film provided are rarely felt here.

“Here We Go Again” is written and directed by Ol Parker, who easily adopts the low-concept aesthetic of the original movie. Only Cher, as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s Las Vegas superstar grandma, manages to rise above the fray with her still-powerful voice and an amusing moment of meta-snark. “You gotta work on your breathing,” she tells Sophie. “And you were a little pitchy.”

Cher's performance as — what else? — a pop superstar is one of the highlights of "Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again." Here are four other films that wouldn’t have been the same without the actress born Cherilyn Sarkisian:

Silkwood (1983) Cher was still seen as a dabbling thespian when she played a lesbian friend of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a real-life whistleblower who died in a suspicious car accident. Cher earned a supporting actress nod in the role.

Mask (1985) In this bio-pic, Cher plays the fiercely devoted mother of Roy “Rocky” Dennis (Eric Stoltz), a teenager with an enlarged cranium. Reviews were glowing, and the film won an Oscar for best makeup.

Moonstruck (1987) Norman Jewison’s comedy about love, Italian-American style, provided Cher with her most memorable role: Loretta Castorini, a hard-headed widow who begins a tempestuous affair with a one-handed baker (Nicolas Cage). The film won three Oscars, including best actress for Cher.

Burlesque (2010) This saucy Christina Aguilera vehicle cast Cher as Tess, a kind of modern-day madam who runs a burlesque club in Los Angeles. The movie is widely considered a near-disaster, but it features one of Cher’s best-known songs, the fittingly titled power-ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me.”

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