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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ Film Review: Lily James Makes Up for Near Absence of Meryl Streep

Follow-up to the hit musical gives ABBA fans what they’ve waited a decade for

“Mamma Mia! The Movie” wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel. Adapted from a stage musical, which was based in turn on the back catalogue of Sweden’s finest pop group, ABBA, it had barely enough plot to sustain one film, let alone two. But it also grossed $615 million from a $52 million budget, making it the fifth most lucrative film of 2008. Faced with those numbers, which producer was going to quibble about a little detail like plot?

As for the writer-director, Ol Parker, he doesn’t come up with any urgent artistic reasons for the existence of its follow-up,”Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” but he does make it surprisingly watchable, and he manages to overcome some mountainous obstacles.

For one thing, the first film, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, was shot on the Greek island of Skopelos, whereas this one has moved to a less idyllic — and less sunny — Croatian location. Parker has to resort to a lot of tight framing — and, by the look of things, a lot of green screen — to disguise the fact that the characters aren’t where they were 10 years ago.

For another thing, “Here We Go Again” doesn’t have more than a few seconds of the first film’s star, Meryl Streep. “Mamma Mia! The Movie” ended with her character, Donna, living happily ever after with her long-lost true love, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), so it’s depressing to learn in the sequel that she has been dead for a year.

Meanwhile, her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who was last seen sailing off into the sunset with her oddly named boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper), has apparently spent much of the last decade restoring her mother’s rustic hotel.

As she prepares for its grand reopening, the narrative flashes back to 1979, whereupon it retells the story that was told in “Mamma Mia! The Movie.” The story, you may remember, is that Donna slept with three men one summer, 20 years earlier, and so she didn’t know which of them was Sophie’s biological father: Sam (Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) or Bill (Stellan Skarsgard).

“Here We Go Again” shows us exactly what happened, with the 20-something Donna played by Lily James, and with Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan impersonating Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard respectively; Irvine is especially adept at mimicking Brosnan’s Irish lilt.

Although viewers will already know what’s going to happen before they get to the cinema, these extended flashbacks add up to a breezily uplifting and youthful romantic comedy, partly due to the input of Richard Curtis, who mapped out the structure with Parker. The new film has funnier, ruder punchlines than the first one did. And when Donna meets the young Harry in Paris, the gauche flirtation between a repressed, upper-middle-class Englishman and a free-spirited American beauty echoes what we have seen in Curtis’s own films since “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”

Most of the sharpest lines go to Donna’s vampish friend Tanya, who is played in the present by Christine Baranski and in the past by the well-nigh-identical Jessica Keenan Wynn. Playing Donna’s other bestie, Rose, Alexa Davies is likeable, if unconvincing as a Julie Walters substitute. The film’s not-so-secret weapon, though, is James. Not only is the “Downton Abbey” alumna a terrific singer, she is so vivacious and luminously gorgeous that it’s easy to understand why the three men should fall in love with her within a week.

In fact, the feelgood romantic shenanigans are so winning that it’s always a disappointment when Donna and her suitors interrupt their flings in order to start singing. It’s not that the songs aren’t excellent: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (who both cameo, of course) are consummate pop craftsmen. But most of ABBA’s greatest hits were used up in “Mamma Mia! The Movie,” and the deep cuts selected by Parker for the sequel — “When I Kissed The Teacher,” “One of Us,” “Why Did It Have to Be Me?” — just don’t have the same catchiness or familiarity as those evergreen karaoke-night staples.

This aspect may stop “Here We Go Again” from being the box office smash that its predecessor was. There is no doubt that it is a superior film in most respects: better acted, better sung, more drama, some genuine emotion, and with songs which sometimes have a vague relevance to the plot. But it doesn’t have the raucous hen-night energy which made “Mamma Mia! The Movie” a phenomenon. Well, not for a while, anyway. The party atmosphere finally fizzes in the last act, when most of the main characters reunite at the hotel, and Cher struts into view as Donna’s diva mother. True, this makes no sense, given that Cher is only three years older than Streep, and given that the first film stated that Donna’s mother was (a) a severe Catholic, and (b) dead. But it’s unlikely that anyone will object to hearing an icon sing “Fernando.”

Besides, if Donna’s mother can return from the grave for ” Here We Go Again,” maybe Donna herself can be revived for “Mamma Three-a” a decade from now.