Dont go wasting your emotion. Theres no use getting upset about the sloppy framing of something like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the cinematic equivalent of a golden retriever puppy—panting, happy-go-lucky, almost pathologically eager to please. Its got catchy tunes, and sunny skies, and the widest bell-bottoms in all the land; it casts Andy García as a mysterious hunk named Fernando, solely for the purpose of carting out Cher to belt ABBAs 1976 hit “Fernando.” It gives the people what they want.
But still: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again—which should ideally be referred to by its complete canonical title, exclamation point included—plays fast and loose with time and space, enough to occasionally distract from the movies myriad pleasures. At least, if youre the kind of nut whos kept awake at night by questions about how the cars in Cars make baby cars. (Warning: spoilers and excessive pedantry follow.)
The trouble starts in the films Godfather: Part II-esque flashbacks, which illustrate that crazy summer when Donna Sheridan (in her younger years, played by Lily James; in her older years, played by a pair of overalls filled with Meryl Streep) found love three times over with a trio of eligible foreign bachelors. Her story begins in May or June of 1979, when shes somewhere around 22 years old—which we know because of a helpful chyron that appears on-screen just before Young Donna unleashes a problematic ABBA B side at her college graduation.
The year 1979 is perfectly fine; just ask Billy Corgan. However! Donnas wild youth was also the focus of a musical number in the first movie: “Our Last Summer”, sung sweetly in that films present day by her grown-up suitors. (Yes, even Pierce Brosnan.) According to Bill, the aging Casanova Stellan Skarsgård plays, their trysts with Donna happened during “the time of the Flower Power,” which would actually place their last summer sometime long before 1979—in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to my precise, scientific calculations. Brief flashes of Brosnan and Skarsgård in young-person drag also support this idea; theyre dressed like regulation hippies.
“Our Last Summer” may not be entirely reliable; it does, after all, encourage us to rhyme “Seine” with “rain.” But the timing it implies actually makes more sense than the timeline established in the second movie, since Skarsgård, Brosnan, and Streep are all in their mid- to late-60s in real life, and would therefore have been appropriately bright-eyed and bushy-tailed during that earlier era. But none of these people were anywhere close to 22 in 1979, as Donna apparently was. (Colin Firth, who plays the third man in Donnas life, is only 57—a relative spring chicken, though still not quite old enough to make the timing work. Perhaps thats why Brosnan and Skarsgård are given groovy wigs in their flashback, but Firth is made over as a Johnny Rotten-loving punk—an emissary of yet another era.)
However! To complicate matters further, in the first movie, Donnas daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried)—the result of one her Last Summer trysts—is supposed to be 20 years old. And that movie came out in 2008. And 2008 does not come 20 years after the late 1960s or early 1970s, or even 1980, when Sophie was actually born, according to the new movies chronology. And while its perfectly possible that Mamma Mia! was released in 2008 but not set in 2008, theres no indication in the movie itself that were meant to be watching a period piece, unless the period in question is “fever dream, circa anytime.” Could it be that the first film is actually set in 1999, when the stage version of Mamma Mia! premiered in London, or 2001, when it premiered on Broadway? It is literally impossible to know for sure.
However! Its also nigh on impossible to determine how much time has elapsed between the events of Mamma Mia! and the events of Here We Go Again. In real life, its been 10 years; in Here We Go Again, everyone certainly looks like theyve aged about a decade. Theres a whole comic set piece about it, when a passport-taker riffs at excruciating length about how cruel time has been to poor Skarsgård!
Yet Bill, at one point, says that hes a man in his fifties, implying that Skarsgård is playing someone significantly younger than the actor is in real life—which fits the timeline established in Here We Go Again, but does not fit the evidence before our very eyes. And at another point, Sophie tells Chers character—who plays the Sheridan family matriarch—that shes “about 25 years too late” to start acting like Sophies grandmother. Which would indicate that only five years have passed between movies.
However! If thats true, and its therefore supposed to be 2005—according to Here We Go Agains retconned timeline—how does Bills female associate have an iPhone, a device that wasnt released to the public until 2007? Did she get an early prototype because Bill has been named Earths Best Swede, or whatever the made-up award that almost prevents him from coming to Sophies aid is called? (Side note: was that literary distinction, bestowed by some sort of Swedish academy, supposed to be . . . the Nobel Prize?!)
Plus: Cher—her character has a name, but lets be real: who cares?—says that she met Fernando in Mexico in 1959, a year in which Cher herself was 13, and Andy García was all of three years old. But why would the movie work so hard to age these characters up, while simultaneously desperately trying to age down the Meryl generation? What was in the air that night, Fernando?
And speaking of which: Have we collectively decided not to be bothered about the fact that 72-year-old Cher is apparently old enough to be 69-year-old Meryl Streeps mother, and 32-year-old Amanda Seyfrieds grandmother? Shes too young to play even 25-year-old Sophie Sheridans grandmother, if Sophie is in fact 25!
Not to mention: Has Christine Baranski seriously had that same crisp Velma Kelly bob for the past 25, 30, or 39 years, depending on how were counting? I mean, what are we to believe—that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something?
So, yes: the only possible conclusion is that the Mamma Mia! movies take place in a fabulous, sun-soaked wormhole, a Mediterranean nether realm beyond the limitations of what we mortals know as “time.” That, or thrillingly lazy screenwriting. The prosecution rests.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Hillary BusisHillary Busis is the Hollywood editor at VanityFair.com. Previously, she was an editor at Mashable and at Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Brooklyn, just like everyone else.