The 2008 film Mamma Mia!, based on the 1999 stage musical of the same name is fucking dreadful: a bunch of famous people mugging stupidly while belting out songs in what we might charitably say is almost always nearly the right key, as the camera is plonked down in stunning indifference to the preceding 95 years of development of the art form of cinema, as the cast is put through some of the most mindlessly ugly choreography in the history of the genre, and as an inexplicable piss-gold light drenches every last corner of the world. But, it has a soundtrack made up of almost all of the best-known hits of Swedish pop icons ABBA, and even when literally everything else is going wrong, the primordial joy of ABBA's hits means that Mamma Mia! is still able to latch onto a kind of pleasure-generating kitschiness.

For reasons that are a little hard to fathom, even by the "we like making money" standards of the film industry, Mamma Mia!  received a sequel ten years and two days later: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. And this is a strange thing, for in virtually every single head-to-head competition you could set up between the two, Here We Go Again is a clear improvement. For one thing, new director Ol Parker is not making his directorial debut, and indeed appears to have watched at least one musical film before making this one. So the number of dance numbers that consist of chunks of Greek islanders randomly drifting into shot while waving their arms back and forth has been kept to a low number, while many more numbers attempt to use dance as a way of reinforcing the important facts of the narrative in that moment. If there were no other changes between the two, this would be enough to declare Here We Go Again an objective, critical improvement over Mamma Mia!, and what's exciting is that there are other good changes. Lily James, the new addition to the cast who sings the most songs out of anybody, turns out to have a very lovely singing voice, while Amanda Seyfried, the member of the original cast who had the best voice, has been given more to do. There's more plot than "celebrity karaoke in Greece", and the songs generally support the narrative in some way rather than just providing space for the next showstopper. But, it has a soundtrack made up mostly of ABBA songs that aren't ingrained into the popular consciousness like the tracks from the first film - out of 15 songs used in the film's narrative, only five are what I'd considered A-list ABBA, and two of those have been hauled back up from the first movie. And so, even though Here We Go Again is better in literally every way but one, that one exception also means that it's less primordial pleasurable.

The song choices are worth dwelling on before I get to the rest, not least because the primary reason any living human will see this movie is because they like ABBA music. It's a weirdly mixed bag: on the one hand, the film makes a virtue of all the big singles having been spent, because it has a better mix of moods. In Mamma Mia!, one size very much fit all: pretty much every number was a huge showstopper, even the intimate character work being attempted by "The Winner Takes It All". In Here We Go Again, there are more ballads, which lend themselves to functioning as book numbers more effectively. On the other hand, the film can't always force those numbers to be book numbers, and it has the misfortune to start with the most clumsy choice: "When I Kissed the Teacher" starts off the movie by suggesting that the protagonist has had a lesbian affair with an Oxford vice-chancellor (Celia Imrie), which is very definitely not what the movie intends to be doing. Or at least, it never follows up on this. Later on, "Knowing Me, Knowing You" is almost used well, as long as you think about the overall sense of the lyrics, but not if you think about the specific meaning of individual lines. That being said, those are the two most conspicuous missteps (the third is "Dancing Queen", which is once again turned into a sort of half-assed feminist anthem - incidentally, looking at how much better this film does the same basic choreography as the last film did with the same song demonstrates how much more sure-footed the directing is this time around in the most dramatic way), and this generally succeeds more as a story told through songs than the original, which was a story upon which songs happened.

So the film is set in 2005, five years after the events of the first movie. Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep) is dead, leaving her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) to finish completing Donna's longstanding dream of rehabbing and re-opening her hotel on the gorgeous Greek island of Kalokairi. Donna's husband, Sam (Pierce Brosnan) has quietly removed himself to mourn, and Sophie's husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is in New York learning the hotel business, while their young marriage weathers its first very rocky spot. Donna's best friends and former bandmates Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) have come for the grand re-opening, and also to offer Sophie moral support. Sophie's two other possibly-her-biological-dads Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) have been held up by work matters.

In 1979, Donna (James) has just graduated from Oxford, and encouraged by Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies), she's going to go see the world. In Paris, she meets a fumbling young Brit named Harry (Hugh Skinner), and against her better judgment, has sex with him. From here, she travels to Greece and Kalokairi, where she meets the handsome but engaged Sam (Jeremy Irvine) and the handsome but flagrantly slutty Bill (Josh Dylan), and has sex with both of them, much less so against her better judgment.

That is, as best I can mimic it, all the more effectiveness with which Here We Go Again ties together its two chronological threads. And this, far more than its reliance on ABBA B-sides, is what actually keeps the movie from being truly good, instead of just a remarkable achievement over a shitty original. Setting aside the question of whether a prequel is necessary per se (after all, the entire point of Mamma Mia! involves explicating everything we see here); setting aside as well the issue that the backstory presented in Here We Go Again is specifically incompatible with what the first movie claimed to be the case (especially around Harry). The least the film could do would be to find some way of making the 1979 and 2005 plotlines actually speak to one another. And if that's not the case, at least it could motivate the 1979 scenes: as the story Tanya and Rosie tell to Sophie, as Sophie's fantasy about her mother's past, whatever. Instead, the film simply shifts back and forth, as though two entirely self-contained films had simply been interleaved because it could be done. Once and only once does this yield something worth the yielding: as 1979 Donna wanders through the rotted ruin of a farmhouse, visualising the wonderful things she could do with the place, she sings "I Have a Dream", a song motivically associated with Sophie in the 2008 film. As Donna explores each room, the film cuts smoothly to Sophie, Tanya, and Rosie in the same spaces, all bright and clean and buffed. It's a sweet little comparison of mother and daughter, reaching across the gap of years to show the generational affinities between the women, and it is quite alone in the whole movie for doing these things.

So that's a big problem - the film's biggest. There's the related matter that the 1979 material is better-executed, in large part because James is the best singer in the cast, but also because the songs are used somewhat better, while the 2005 material is more interesting by virtue of not being a straight retread of something covered entirely within the span of the song "Honey Honey" in the first film. And the 2005 material suffers from a lot of other things: really fucking arbitrary plotting around the three dads (of course they all show up to the opening party, and of course they do it for the highly-motivated reason "because it's a movie"), a deeply inorganic Cher cameo much too late in the movie for the marketing team to feel like they've done good work by pretending she's a major character - also, fuck the hell out of the sound team for mixing Cher so loud as to suck all the texture out of my favorite ABBA song, for no other reason than because she is Cher - and a Streep cameo so ill-motivated that it goes back around to being funny.

All this being said, Here We Go Again is hardly the grueling misery that the first film was, and while I still don't think that watching people being this strenuously gleeful is "fun", the new film is trying much less hard than its predecessor to be a karaoke party. It's trying to be a musical, and while I don't think that's a particularly good one, that important shift in emphasis is very much appreciated.