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‘Mamma Mia 2’ not nearly as terrible as the original

The first “Mamma Mia” movie was terrible. How could it not have been? It was based on the worst kind of musical – an entirely inorganic show, written in ridiculously twisted and contorted fashion so as to justify including completely unrelated songs. The actors, to their credit, were game but couldn’t really sing (Pierce Brosnan, anyone?), and the Abba songs were, what can I say, Abba songs. Like Kars-for-Kids commercials, they’re the very definition of earworms – impossible to get out of your head.

And now, a mere ten years later, we have a follow-up movie, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again.” (By the way, I take that phrase as a threat.)

And yes, it too is pretty terrible, but not nearly as terrible as the original.

For one thing, the prequel/sequel design of the show works well. Since we found out in “Mamma Mia” that Meryl Streep’s Donna had slept with three possible fathers of her daughter, Sophie, this time around we get to watch how young Donna met and matched with each of the three lovers.

Simultaneously, the film follows – in present time – Sophie’s efforts at opening a Hotel Bella Donna in her mom’s honor. (Spoiler alert: We find out in the first scene that Donna had died the year before.) The movie toggles back and forth between these two storylines, finding parallels along the way, one in particular that pays off nicely at the end.

The key to this design’s success is the casting of Lily James as Meryl Streep’s younger self. Best known for “Downton Abbey” and “Cinderella,” James not only brings a winning personality to the role, but she can actually sing.

But even James can’t save us from Abba duds like the film’s first big number “When I Kissed the Teacher,” especially when it’s so poorly choreographed.

This raises something of a dilemma for this sequel. Since the first film used up most of Abba’s hits, a lot of the 19 musical numbers here are relatively unknown. Whoever heard of “Kisses of Fire”? “Andante, Andante”? “My Love, My Life”? “The Day Before You Came?”

The film senses this and tries to make up for it with over-the top productions of the two big hits that didn’t make the first film’s storyline: “Waterloo” and “Fernando.” The latter is getting the most buzz because it’s done by Cher, who plays Donna’s prima donna mother.

I’ll grant you Cher’s voice fits the song nicely, but the staging is so clumsy, she looks even older than her 72 years.

The film also cheats a little by reprising the biggest hits from the first film – not just “Mamma Mia,” but also, of course, “Dancing Queen.”

Speaking of which, there are three nearly identical versions of “Dancing Queen,” despite the fact that one was recorded 42 years ago, another 10 years ago, and the other just this year.

I don’t mind a musical that takes old pop songs and revives them with a fresh new sound, or interpretation, or twist. Baz Luhrmann did that very thing in his excellent “Moulin Rouge.” But so many of the movie Mamma Mia songs are done so similarly to the original recordings as to seem redundant.

“But that’s the point!” I can hear Abba fans screaming at me right now. “We don’t want them to sound different! Ear worms forever!”

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