Following up a surprise hit with a sequel is a difficult creative endeavor, and doubly so in the comedy genre. So many recent comedy hits have been getting the sequel treatment in the last fifteen years, and yet few and far between are the efforts that stand alongside the originals, not even as equals but as respectable second outings. Thankfully, Pitch Perfect 2 has a readymade framework to follow to attempt to avoid many comedy sequel pitfalls: sports movies. The first film followed the sports comedy movie template very closely, following a team of mismatched underdogs rise to greatness (see also: Slap Shot, The Bad News Bears, Major League, The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green,, etc.), in this case substituting acapella for sports. Pitch Perfect 2 does the same, and faces many of the same challenges that faced the filmmakers of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and Major League II, namely how to take these success stories and reset them to a point where we can reuse all of the things that worked in the first film.
Where Pitch Perfect 2 specifically seems to draw from is D2: The Mighty Ducks, which has a suitably wacky premise. Now that the Barden Bellas/Mighty Ducks have won on their home turf, it’s time to take on the world, with evil personified by stuck up, tall blonds (Germany for the Bellas, Iceland in the case of the Ducks). The film picks up three years later, with the Barden Bellas three-time national champions, on top of the world. Some awful plot contrivances put the Bellas in a position where they must win Worlds (the world championship of acapella), and off we go, with the apparent national champions bumbling at every move until they “rediscover their harmony.”
Unfortunately, while the original film did a great job balancing gags and character moments, this film largely tosses all of the character work aside with the exception of Beca (Anna Kendrick). The rest of the characters are largely either one note, or fade into the background. Well, there is an attempt to give Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) a storyline, but sadly this breakout character is reduced to a by-the-numbers romance. There is a “back to basics” sequence set at a bear trap laden retreat for Fortune 500ers in the middle of the film that works brilliantly, and actually does allow some breathing room to address themes like reluctance to leave the nest, legacy, and what school achievements should really mean in our lives. However, they are largely never addressed again in the film. The draw away from characters turns some of the cast into problems rather than assets.
None of that would have bothered me if the jokes had hit me more. While I am likely to be in the minority, my aloud guffaws were few and far between, despite those in the audience around me repeatedly laughing. It’s not that the film wasn’t funny or entertaining, rather it just rarely landed a joke in a way that crossed the line from thinking something is funny to the involuntary reaction of laughter. Much of the things I found truly funny in the film were from newcomers Keegan-Michael Key, who at least brings an energy to his paper thin character, and the members of Das Sound Machine. Thanks to screenwriter Kay Cannon (30 Rock, New Girl) the jokes come at a frantic pace, but it ends up feeling like the movie is throwing everything at you, trying to figure out what exactly people liked about the first film.
To me, that was largely the music. That is one area where Pitch Perfect 2 rarely disappoints. More music is definitely a good thing, and while the format of the music is largely the same, it covers a wider stretch of musical styles and eras than the first film, including a Christmas track I will definitely be revisiting in a few months down the road. Also of note is that Muse is incredibly creepy when sung with German accents.
While fans of the first hoping for more of the same will not likely be disappointed, Pitch Perfect 2 is a let down for not shining a light on its characters as well as its music and humor.
Pitch Perfect 2 opens in Philly area theaters today.