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My my, what the hell is up with the Mamma Mia! timeline?

Photo: Universal Pictures, Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech, Wikimedia
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This post discusses plot points from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

After a screening of the absolutely bonkers Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, my friend and A.V. Club colleague Allison Shoemaker turned to me and posited a theory: Like the final season of Lost, Mamma Mia! takes place in a purgatory realm where time and space are irrelevant. After all, how else could you explain the fact that Cher is playing the mother of a woman who’s just three years younger than her? (For his part, Here We Go Again writer-director Ol Parker seems to agree.) But assuming that Mamma Mia! is, in fact, limited by linear time, is there any way in which the series’ timeline makes sense?

The confusing nature of the Mamma Mia! timeline has bothered me ever since I saw the first film back 2008. And my subsequent rewatches (of which there have been many; Mamma Mia! is a movie I would happily watch every day for the rest of my life) have only furthered my curiosity about when the movie is set and how old everyone is supposed to be. Given that the first film isn’t hugely specific about its timeline, it was possible to wave away a lot of those potential inconsistencies. But since Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again makes the fatal mistake of solidifying some concrete dates, let’s take a dive into their unintentional implications.

1979: “Dancing Queen”

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a Godfather II-esque sequel in which a present day story continues the adventures of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and company while a flashback storyline tells an origin story for Donna (Lily James). The flashback opens with a hard date: Donna’s graduation from New College, Oxford in 1979. Rather than settle down in a career or return home to her judgmental mother, Donna decides to travel the world. She eventually winds up sleeping with three handsome men (Sophie’s three potential dads), settling down on the Greek island of Kalokairi, and giving birth to Sophie nine months later. So if Donna’s trysts happened in the summer of 1979, let’s assume Sophie was born in 1980 and that Donna was about 23 or 24 at the time.

2000: “Mamma Mia!”

Since the fact that Sophie is 20 is a major plot point in the first Mamma Mia!, that means that despite being released in 2008, the first film actually takes place in 2000. That setting clearly wasn’t an intentional choice on the part of the filmmakers at the time, but it’s not the craziest retcon either. The film’s costumes don’t scream 2000, but they aren’t particularly rooted in 2008 either. Most importantly, there’s virtually no technology shown in the first film, other than a mention of the fact that Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) wants to make a website for Donna’s hotel. The 2000 setting is definitely a little strange, but it mostly checks out.

2005: “Here We Go Again”

Here’s where things start to get really weird: Given that it took 10 years for Mamma Mia! to get a sequel, one would assume that the in-world timeline would make that same jump. That’s the simplest way to explain why all of the characters have visibly aged 10 years, and there’s nothing unrealistic about Sophie getting pregnant with her first child at age 30 in the year 2010. But instead, Here We Go Again makes the bizarre choice to have Sophie specifically state that she’s only 25. That means Here We Go Again is actually set in 2005, despite the fact that the movie also very, very conspicuously shows modern technology like tablets and iPhones. (The first iPhone wasn’t released until 2007 and tablets didn’t get popular until 2010.)

Of all the questions I have about the Mamma Mia! franchise, this one haunts me the most: Why on earth did Here We Go Again randomly decide to feature only a five-year gap between films? That not only makes Sophie’s massive revamping of Donna’s hotel much less realistic, it also makes Donna’s already tragic life even more tragic. Here We Go Again reveals that Donna (Meryl Streep) died a year before the start of the film, which means she only got to spend four years reconnecting with Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan) before her super early death at the age of 48. So why not just set the sequel 10 years later and extend both Donna’s life and her happy marriage? Clearly Ol Parker is a masochist.

Age: “Young and sweet, only 43"

There’s a pretty simple real-world explanation for the weirdness of the Mamma Mia! timeline (at least in the first film; the five year time jump in the sequel is still bizarre). Mamma Mia! began life as a 1999 West End musical of the same name. Producer Judy Craymer commissioned Catherine Johnson to write the script in 1997, and in the milieu of the mid ’90s it made a lot more sense for a fortysomething single mom to be raising a love child conceived in the “flower power” era of the late ’60s/early ’70s. But ever since then, neither the show nor its film adaptations have wanted to fully contend with the passage of time.

For instance, the first Mamma Mia! movie decided to cast actors who really were twentysomethings during the flower power era (i.e., actors who were in their mid-to-late-50s in 2008). But the timeline weirdness means they’re all theoretically playing characters who are 10-15 years younger than they are (expect for Colin Firth, who actually is a decade younger than most of his co-stars). Again, that’s not the craziest thing in the world; actors don’t have to be the same age as the characters they’re playing. But the film wants to have it both ways with its characters’ ages.

Even at 59—as she was during the first film—Streep could pass as a 43-year-old. But Mamma Mia! mines a lot of its humor from Donna, Tanya (Christine Baranski), and Rosie (Julie Walters) joking about how old and rundown they are—jokes that make far more sense coming from people in their late 50s rather than their early 40s. You could argue Mamma Mia! just doesn’t care about its characters’ ages, but Here We Go Again specifically has 67-year-old Stellan Skarsgård refer to himself as a “man in his 50s,” so clearly someone put some thought into how old they wanted these characters to be. Just not enough.

Continuity: “The Name Of The Game”

As often happens in a sequel, Here We Go Again takes a lot of liberties with the continuity established in the first film. In the first movie, Donna’s mother is described as a judgmental, old-fashioned Catholic woman who disowned her daughter after she got pregnant. It’s also implied that she’s dead. Yet in Here We Go Again, Donna’s mother, Ruby (Cher), is not only very much alive, but also a glamorous Las Vegas singer with a tragic romantic past of her own. (Again, it can’t be emphasized enough that Cher is only three years older than Streep.)

But, to my eyes, the far bigger continuity issue involves young Harry Bright (Hugh Skinner playing young Colin Firth). The “Honey, Honey” sequence from the first film clearly establishes the timeline of Donna’s romantic trysts as laid out in her diary: Sam brings Donna to the island Kalokairi where they sleep together and fall in love. After Sam leaves to return to his fiancé, Bill shows up and Donna sleeps with him in the hopes of getting over Sam. And then Harry shows up “out of the blue” a week later and Donna sleeps with him last.

The first two plot points check out, but the last event is totally omitted from Here We Go Again. That Donna and Harry spend time in Paris (which is where their one and only sexual encounter in Here We Go Again takes place) is also part of the first film’s established continuity. But cutting Donna and Harry’s island tryst is a pretty massive change that downplays the mystical, romantic nature of Kalokairi. Given that we’re shown a brief scene of Harry trying and failing to follow Donna to the island, it’s possible their second tryst was filmed and cut. As it stands, however, Harry was little more than an awkward blip on Donna’s radar.

Emotional Continuity: “SOS”

And that doesn’t just break plot continuity, it also raises some serious questions about the emotional well-being of all the characters in this franchise. The central conceit of the original Mamma Mia! movie is that Harry, Bill, and Sam were so enamored with Donna back in the day that despite not speaking to her in 20 years, they’re willing to travel halfway across the world to attend the wedding of her daughter, whom they’ve never met. Yet according to Here We Go Again, Donna spent less than 24 hours with Harry (a good chunk of which he spent trying to convince her to take his virginity) and not much more with Bill. That they both happily show up at her daughter’s wedding 20 years later is actually kind of terrifying.

Most prequels add depth to their stories, but Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again may be the first prequel to actively take away the depth of the original. In the first film, the “Our Last Summer” sequence implies that Donna had much longer relationships with all three men (whether romantic or otherwise), and then just happened to sleep with all of them in a row right before she got pregnant. That’s why she’s at least somewhat charmed to see them again in 2008 (er, 2000). Here We Go Again throws all that out the window to offer three meet-cutes instead. Also gone? The distinctive 1970s looks of Donna’s three beaus. R.I.P. Harry Headbanger. R.I.P. Bill’s knee tattoos. R.I.P. Sam’s incredible hippie mustache.

Sam’s Sons: “Slipping Through My Fingers”

Speaking of Sam, here’s a weird dangling thread from the first film: At one point Sam somewhat patronizingly chastises Donna for how she’s parenting Sophie. He explains that he has “two grown children” and therefore “knows something about letting go.” But just how old are Sam’s kids supposed to be?

They certainly can’t be older than Sophie, given that there’s no indication the fiancé he cheated on (and later married) was pregnant while he was sleeping with Donna. And even if Sam got his fiancé pregnant with twins the second he returned, his sons couldn’t be older than 19 or 20. Realistically, they’re probably even younger. Yet Sam talks about them like they’re thirtysomethings who are settled in their adult lives. And if he’s just referring to sending them off to college, he’s awfully arrogant about how much experience he has parenting “adult” children.

Also, where are those kids in Here We Go Again? Why didn’t Sam invite them to the grand opening of the hotel he’s now co-running? Has he even spoken to them since he abandoned his old life to spontaneously move to a remote Greek island and marry a woman he cheated on their mother with for a couple weeks 20 years ago? Is Sam secretly the biggest jerk in this entire franchise? (Yes.)

Conclusion: Finally Facing My Waterloo

That’s just a small sampling of the questions I have about the Mamma Mia! universe. (Others include: Why didn’t Sophie’s two best friends come to her big hotel opening? What happened to Sophie’s dreams of being an artist? Why are present-day Rosie and Tanya utterly shocked to learn Donna slept with other men around the time she was dating Sam, even though they were apparently the ones to encourage her to rebound with Bill in the first place?)

But the bigger question is, does any of this really matter? And of course it doesn’t. Unless you’re a weirdo like me, you don’t watch Mamma Mia! for its timeline continuity, you watch it for its over-the-top ABBA homages and surprisingly emotional mother/daughter storytelling. And if you are going to raise questions about Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, there are better ones to ask than timeline ones. For instance: What was up with that goat? And how can we ever root for Donna after learning she’s the sort of person who goes swimming in jean shorts?