WARNING: Spoilers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again contains a bunch of ABBA covers and one massive shocker: Meryl Streep's Donna has died. Across all the trailers for the film, which is both a sequel and prequel to 2008's Mamma Mia, the question of where Streep is has loomed large. Her older Donna (played in the prequel elements of Mamma Mia 2 by Lily James) was glimpsed, but only in archive footage from the first movie. The plot was thickened when nobody involved would say anything about the three-time Oscar winner's role, yet Streep was still present in both the poster and at the film's world premiere.
Now the film's arrived, however, the truth is out. Donna Sheridan died a year before Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, itself set five years after the first Mamma Mia! We don't learn the circumstances of her death, with director Ol Parker instead putting the focus on the hole she leaves behind: daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is attempting to honor her memory by reopening her hotel yet mired by self-doubt; husband Sam (Pierce Brosnan) looks back on his decades-ago betrayal of her trust with unrequited regret; best friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) are shaken yet attempting to move forward.
Streep eventually turns up in the final scene for a surreal (and given the spontaneous ABBA dancing, that's saying something) scene where she metaphysically embraces Sophie at her granddaughter's christening, symbolically passing the Sheridan torch, then steps outside, leaving those mourning her to celebrate this new life. It's a strikingly earnest moment for Mamma Mia, one that underscores the duology's message of relationships and experiences being the real meaning behind life, as well as injecting the Lily James-fronted flashbacks with retroactive greater meaning. Streep then helps lead a whole-ensemble cover of "Super Trouper" over the film's credits.
Now, this is a very strange setup. Unlike similar legacy-quels, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again uses Donna's death not as a surprise but an inciting incident, with it laid down in the first fifteen minutes. And yet the person playing her nevertheless appears in the movie. This isn't a case of an actor refusing to return to a sequel (and, as Streep appears in scenes involving the full cast, scheduling doesn't appear to be a problem either), rather a pointed narrative decision.
Indeed, speaking to Vulture, Parker stated that the death plot device came from The Godfather Part II conceit. Once Richard Curtis' daughter Scarlett had suggested going into Donna's past and dramatizing her diary from the first film, there was no other story for the sequel. However, the writers couldn't find a way to justify it that didn't have Donna dead; the audience's journey into the past became part of the characters' recollections, and the parallels between Sophie and her mother more pointed. Streep was more than happy to play along, leading to the sequel getting a much stronger emotional throughline than the knockabout original (which, lest we forget, is about a girl trying to figure out which of three men are her father). In that context, the trailers playing coy over Streep's involvement and plot role make a lot more sense; while it isn't a spoiler, it's at the core of the movie, something that is best preserved.
It's a selfless sequel move that means, while Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is very much more of the same (just with lesser-known ABBA songs for the most part) and tells a known story, it feels oddly fresh.
- Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) release date: Jul 20, 2018