“Pitch Perfect” — 2012’s sleeper hit about an all-female college a cappella team competing for a national championship — was the smash hit that nobody saw coming. Produced for a paltry $17 million, the film turned into a global sensation, raking in over $112 million, turning Anna Kendrick into a bona fide star, and firmly securing its soundtrack a place on the iPods of aca-lytes worldwide. For a musical comedy produced by a woman (Elizabeth Banks), written by a woman (“30 Rock” alum Kay Cannon) and starring a whole bunch of women (Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp and Rebel Wilson, who all returned for the sequel), it also served as proof that a female-centric comedy could do serious damage at the box office, even with nary an Avenger in site.
Banks slid into the director’s chair for “Pitch Perfect 2,” a larger-than-life sequel whose scale and scope speaks directly to the surprising success of the first. The budget has almost doubled, as evidenced by the increasingly elaborate set pieces, including a grandiose, Coachella-esque final performance. "Pitch Perfect 2" is just larger, in every sense, featuring more song-and-dance-numbers, more meandering subplots, more rapid-fire jokes and visual gags, and more out-of-left-field celebrity cameos, and it is both better and worse for its aca-xpansion. (By the way, the sequel has a lot more aca puns. Consider yourself warned!)
The setup is basically this: Our resident national champs, the Barden Bellas, are suspended from competition after Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy accidentally has a wardrobe malfunction during a performance for President Obama and the first lady (as you can see, the franchise's fundamental silliness remains intact). After some slut-shaming from the national news media (a clever little bit of media satire featuring many recognizable talking heads), the group is given an ultimatum: The Barden Bellas will be finished for good unless they can win at the world championships in Copenhagen. But in order to do that they will have to beat reigning champs “Das Sound Machine,” a terrifying group of leather-clad, Kraftwerk-esque German caricatures proficient in robot-inspired dance moves and techno-beat boxing. On the way to the World Championships, they gain a new member, a Bella “legacy” searching for her voice (a charming Hailee Steinfeld), Anna Kendrick’s Beca Mitchell struggles to prove herself at an internship working for a tyrannical record producer (played by Keegan Michael-Key), and the girls cope with adjusting to the prospect of life after college.
There are obvious problems with the sequel. In terms of plot, it’s basically just a redux of the first one — the gang must harness the power of friendship and vocal harmonization in order to redeem themselves after an embarrassing incident — but with less narrative coherence. Subplots are freely picked up and abandoned. The first movie soared on the charm of Anna Kendrick’s Beca, but our leading lady has been sidelined here at the expense of growing the ensemble, so we lose time with our awkward, witty audience-proxy in favor of peripheral characters who generally aren’t all that well developed anyway. The subplots for Beca's boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin) and his male "Treble Makers" are substantially cut down, while Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy shtick feels a lot more tired three years later. And while the film maintains the franchise's satiric, edgy humor — Banks and John Michael Higgins are especially riotous as a recurring a cappella announcer duo — many of the jokes feel stilted or even offensive, particularly a cringeworthy recurring gag about the Bellas’ one Latina member.
Yet even when it misfires, the movie still pulses with life, especially when the female leads are bonding. When the girls go on a group wilderness retreat to "find their sound," those scenes are less about plot or character development than the warm feeling of spending quality time with old friends. The musical interludes, too, are more fun than ever: "Pitch Perfect 2" fills a "Glee"-shaped hole when it comes to show choir-esque covers of contemporary pop songs, expanding its repertoire to include a whopping number of chart-toppers and crowd-pleasers (and yes, Beyoncé is a feature). One of the best moments comes in the form of a “riff-off,” thrown by a bathrobe-wearing cappella-fanatic played by David Cross. As the Barden Bellas face off against other groups (including the Greenbay Packers, and a Barden alumni group composed of Jason Jones, Reggie Watts and others), and cycle through categories from "songs about butts" to "I dated John Mayer," I found myself giggling with glee at the gorgeous, ballsy, over-the-top silliness of it. It's a big, estrogen-filled, foot-stompin, booty-shakin’ a cappella party, and I didn’t want to leave. If there had been karaoke lyrics running along the bottom of the screen — à la the "Frozen" sing-along — I would have gladly chimed in (free idea, AMC theaters!).
But just because "Pitch Perfect 2" doesn't take itself too seriously doesn't mean it's not important: In an industry where the Bechdel test is much discussed but rarely passed, a movie that prioritizes female-on-female interactions and women working together is a rare gem to be savored. The fact that no less than the president and first lady would agree to participate in a shamelessly fun film about girls singing college a cappella speaks to how significant a milestone for women on-screen the whole franchise is. As John Michael Higgins' misogynist announcer constantly reminds us, sexism is still a pervasive force (as he says dismissively after the Bellas get banned: ”The truth is, you’re just women and you’ll all be pregnant soon”). When the Barden Bellas come out for their grand finale — to Beyoncé's "Who Run the World? Girls," of course — I almost welled up. Because unlike every other major franchise and sequel right now, girls actually do run this mother. And that’s an aca-complishment.