Competitive a cappella groups score points for snazzy reinventions of the recognizable, but sequels rarely try for such innovation. And so Pitch Perfect 2, the sparky enough follow-up to the surprise musical comedy from 2012, doesn't stray from the original. What we have is an update that is tighter, slicker and fine-tuned in more ways than one – no doubt music to the ears of the fans of a flowering franchise.
Crass zingers fly, songs have more verve and, a-ca-casionally, familiar characters show growth. And by growth, we're not talking about Fat Amy's expansion.
Then again, we are. Although Anna Kendrick's Beca is again the lead here (as the chief arranger for Barden Bellas, an all-girl college a cappella group), Rebel Wilson's sassy Fat Amy fills up more screen time. In fact, she shows way too much in the sequel's opening moments, descending from the rafters during a Kennedy Center performance. The wardrobe malfunction leaves no wonder to the Aussie's "down under," and the Obamas in the private box – stock first couple footage is used – are left wincing from the vaginal mishap.
The Bellas, who snagged a national championship in Pitch Perfect as freshmen, are now seniors and three-time defenders. As a result of Amy's unfortunate exposure, however, the troupe is thrown off a victor's tour, with no chance for a fourth straight title.
As soundtrack choices are mindful of the storyline, the downturn of the Bellas is accompanied by Mika's bouncy Lollipop hit from 2007, about trying too hard and ultimately being let down. But the girls are not flat for long. Stripped of their national tiara, they decide to shoot for a world title instead.
And there's your narrative, skimpier than a Beyoncé gown and so standard: redemption, twee-glee style. (Or Rocky style: The lead singer of German antagonists Das Sound Machine is a female Ivan Drago, albeit one whose intimidating sexuality unnerves Beca to humorous ends.)
The way back to respectability is a road of fun. We have plenty of one-joke characters, and there's Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins back as the pithy broadcasters. Higgins – who knows his way around Christopher Guest-mode comedy and whose Owner of a Lonely Heart dinner-table performance in The Break-up gets a big "yes" as the greatest a cappella moment in cinematic history – is particularly hilarious as the riotously racist and merrily misogynistic commentator. He sees the successful all-gal glee clubbers as an "inspiration to all girls across the country who are too ugly to be cheerleaders."
Banks, who also makes her feature directorial debut here, is strictly second banana. She's also unadventurous behind the camera. A trip to Copenhagen for an outdoor festival – A Cachella, perhaps? – is dealt with dismissively.
But make way for the clumsy underclassman Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld (all grown up from True Grit). She ushers in a new sensibility – original songs instead of covers – and finds a willing collaborator in Beca, an aspiring music producer looking for a voice of her own. Likewise, the rest of the harmony-happy graduating class considers its next steps, too.
As for the film, it doesn't try too hard to distinguish itself from its predecessor, hitting the notes it needs to hit while pushing a girl-power – we hear Beyoncé's Run the World (Girls) – agenda. Although it works well as an encore, the likelihood is that this thing isn't over until the Fat Amy zings again.