“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” Had No Business Being So Sad
In which I re-imagine this super fun movie without the depressing premise
September 19, 2018 at 9:00 am
The creative team behind Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again didn’t have an easy task. They were dreaming up a risky sequel to a well-established and beloved jukebox musical, for one thing. And for another, they couldn’t get Meryl Streep fully on board this time.
I’m amazed this movie exists.
I’m also glad it does, since it’s a super fun summer film that easily holds its own next to the original. For a couple hours, this movie offers a much-needed escape, whisking viewers away on a wonderful adventure, full of sparkling blue water and ABBA, alongside good friends and dreamy romantic flings.
There’s just one problem here: Meryl’s Donna is … dead? Since she only agreed to a tiny amount of screen-time, including a single song, the story handles this by having characters in present-day Greece mourning her death. To quote a popular meme: Thanks, I hate it!
Listen, this has been a trying year, and I really don’t want to think about Mom Death while watching an ABBA musical, okay? The undercurrent of grief in the film turned happy moments bittersweet—and, maybe even worse, had me dreading that another Sad Moment might be right around the corner during upbeat scenes.
And just, ugh. It didn’t have to be this way! With Donna alive and kickin’, this movie could have delivered a tonally improved version of nearly the same fun, emotional story about the unbreakable bonds we form with our favorite people/places—with only minor tweaks needed to the present-day storyline.
For your consideration, here’s how I wish the movie had played out:
Just like in the current film, we begin on the fictional Grecian island of Kalokairi, where Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) has taken over her mother’s old hotel and is preparing for a grand reopening. She’s working hard to get everything ready, while coping with some disappointment that two of her three fathers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry (Colin Firth) won’t be able to make it to the big night. So far, so good.
Instead of Sophie’s tearful conversation with other father Sam (Pierce Brosnan), where they lament their shared loss of Donna (his wife and Sophie’s mother), we find out through passing comments—“Look, another postcard from your parents!” or whatever—that Donna and Sam are off on a new adventure. Maybe they’re away on a belated honeymoon, since the last movie ended with their wedding (!), with Donna having retired and closed the struggling hotel.
Donna and Sam are returning soon for what they believe will be Sophie’s 30th birthday celebration. However, Sophie has yet to tell her mom that she wants to take over the hotel, so the grand reopening will be a total surprise, and Sophie’s starting to question her choices: What if her mom isn’t excited about her take on the hotel? What if Donna wanted to leave it all behind rather than see her follow in those footsteps?
A smaller detail I prefer about this revised premise, already, is that we know this is truly what Sophie wants to do—it wasn’t a choice made through grief/coping. She came back to the same beautiful island where she grew up and said, “Yes, this is home,” instead of “How can I memorialize my mother?” And as fans of the first movie have undoubtedly noticed, this also makes for a nice callback to ten years before, when Sophie was nervous about her mom’s reaction to her secretly inviting all three of her potential fathers to her own wedding. Plus, I just love the idea that, even after all these years, Sophie can’t help but spring new surprises on her mom.
Donna’s two besties, Rosie and Tanya arrive, both to celebrate Sophie and help with the surprise party-slash-grand reopening (they’re in on it, of course). There’s no talk of “bolstering” or Rosie bursting into tears at the mention of Donna’s name—instead, they remark on how Donna never stopped craving adventures and how proud and amazed she’ll be when she discovers that Sophie wanted to carry on the “family business.” As a bonus, when the two swoon over new hotel manager Fernando, it isn’t in contrast to Rosie fighting back tears only seconds earlier! Because no one is dead!!
Meanwhile, the flashbacks to Young Donna meeting Sam, Harry, and Bill for the first time stay the same (Lily James achieves perfection as Young Donna, and nothing—nothing—about her arc needs improvement!) and contrast to the present nicely: Where Donna originally stumbled upon the island by chance and dreamed up the idea of starting a hotel purely on a whim, Sophie is bringing that dream to life in a much more practical and strategic way … only to be reminded that island life can be totally unpredictable.
Consider how extra-wonderful the boat reunion scene is in this hypothetical version of the movie, with Harry and Bill arriving and seeing each other after so long … only for Super Alive Donna and Sam to walk up, too! Hooray! The four of them are standing on the same deck where they each stood at different times all those years ago (as shown in the flashbacks). HEART EYES. They’re greeted by the same ticket agent, cross paths with Alexio (whom Donna and Bill remember helping near that same harbor), and talk about the old days.
Imagine how happy Sophie is when she looks through the binoculars at the incoming boats: Her mom and all three dads are on their way, and they’re bringing a crowd of dancing fishermen with them! And then Sky is there, too! What a wonderfully happy and not at all bittersweet moment! FEEL THE BEAT FROM THE TAMBOURINE, OH YEAH.
Next comes a moment we’ve been waiting for: Sophie confesses to her mom that she has a big surprise in store. Donna sets foot in the freshly renovated hotel for the first time, marveling at the way her daughter has updated it, mirroring her own actions when she first arrived on the island decades before. She is stunned, she is speechless, and she is so proud. This island and this hotel became her life’s passion when she so desperately craved a place to call home, and now her daughter has found the same calling.
Sophie and Donna sing a happy duet while the rest of the cast looks on. After their beautiful and perfect song, Sophie reveals a second surprise: She is pregnant, and she finally understands how her mom felt all those years ago. (I mean, wouldn’t this conversation be so much more moving with Donna instead of Sky?! In a film with mothers and daughters at the heart of its story, this could have had everyone reaching for their tissues … instead, we get Howard Stark looking mildly shocked.)
Next, it’s time to celebrate Sophie! You might be wondering why I’m going so hard on the birthday celebration idea in this pitch, and here’s a big part of my reasoning: Consider the greater impact of the flashback to Sophie’s birth now, coupled with Donna and everyone else gathering to wish her a Happy 30th in the present. Missed opportunity!
Here’s where things get tricky. In the current film, estranged Grandma Ruby (Cher) crashes the party, announcing that Sky (Dominic Cooper) tracked her down and she decided she wanted a fresh chance to get to know her granddaughter (Sophie)—despite having disowned Donna, her own daughter, so long ago. So, since we definitely still want Ruby to show up, we need a new reason. The way I see it? No need to overthink or over-complicate it. Maybe Sky was still the one who reached out, but instead of his plea involving a death, it hinged on the fact that Ruby’s adult granddaughter is turning 30 and beginning her own business venture and would really like to meet her … because, hey, milestone birthdays are a big deal, and maybe after ample time for reflection (and tiring of her self-imposed isolation), Ruby is regretful of her past and has been hoping that someone would offer her a second chance.
Ruby’s arrival leads to some new tension, of course: Sophie has mixed feelings about Sky contacting her at all (but, also, they’re totally soulmates because they just can’t resist those big surprises), and Donna is understandably shocked, with years of suppressed abandonment and hurt boiling to the surface.
Seeing Donna upset, Tanya and Rosie step in with a distraction: a Dynamos performance! Only … Donna isn’t up for it this time. She’s too out of sorts, and her mother is the one person whose gaze makes her too uncomfortable to perform. This provides the perfect setup to keep a powerful moment fully intact: Sophie steps in and performs with Tanya and Rosie, just as she’s always dreamed of doing—she totally has the lyrics and moves down. Only, in this version, her mother and grandmother look on—Donna watching with pride (and calming down) as Sophie shines in the spotlight, and Ruby quietly considering all she’s missed. And we, as viewers, nod our heads, understanding that families are complicated, but when they come together for the right reasons, those moments are what give our lives meaning.
Ruby’s hilarious reunion with Fernando remains exactly the same, obviously.
Finally, in the time-jump epilogue, Sophie carries her newborn son into the island chapel to be baptised. Three generations of her family stand up at the altar together to see the baby’s christening—sharing the moment and supporting each other. We see through small interactions that Donna and her mother are now, somewhat cautiously, on better terms. Instead of being heartbreaking, this scene maintains its tenderness while also becoming a cozy moment of family/friends coming together and reflecting on their love for one another. (And there are zero ghosts.)
THE END, ROLL CREDITS AND “SUPER TROUPER.”
Was that hard? No. And look, I’m just one nerd with a laptop. The only hill I’m dying on is that Donna should NOT be dead; all other details here are minor. Imagine the many superior/wonderful plots the film’s actual creative team could have developed with Donna alive! The mind boggles that the movie ended up with so much SAD.
Of course, I totally get that there are going to be fans who will never agree with my proposed and completely hypothetical revisions. In fact, I pitched this alternate story concept to my own mother, and she shook her head the entire time and then looked me square in the eyes and said, “That movie was perfect.” And, hey, I almost agree! Almost.
I just can’t help but imagine how warm and cozy this story could have been if the backstory had been anything other than Donna’s death. Had it been the happy, feel-good story I described above, I’d probably want to watch it again and again. For now, I’ll stick with the soundtrack. (Seriously, Lily James’s lovely rendition of “Andante, Andante” is chills-inducing.)