Pitch Perfect 2

(2015) ** 1/2 Pg-13
115 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Elizabeth Banks. Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow.

/content/films/4792/1.jpgThough stretched a bit thin across its two-hour canvas, Pitch Perfect 2 frames a peppy, poppy, funny sequel colored with youthful feminism. Like its 2012 predecessor, the follow-up comes credited as (loosely) adapted, by screenwriter Kay Cannon (30 Rock), from Mickey Rapkin's non-fiction book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory.

And like the not-so-distant trend of dance movies, the Pitch Perfect franchise offers "found" musicals with plots that more or less naturally incorporate song and dance: three-time defending national collegiate champion a capella group the Barden University Bellas pursues a Glee-ful vocation of perfecting its sound and trouncing competition with dazzling vocal displays and production numbers (again choreographed by Aakomon Jones). In the sequel's opening sequence, the Bellas face international gone-viral disgrace when a wardrobe malfunction strikes the nether-regions of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) as she comes in "like a wrecking ball" during a command performance.

Suddenly, the champs are bottom-of-the-barrel underdogs faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of winning the World A Capella Championship and thus regaining their reputation and right to operate freely at Barden. Meanwhile, relatively level-headed star performer Beca (the always adorable Anna Kendrick, fresh off "Into the Woods") interns with a high-powered pop producer (a winningly keyed-up Keegan-Michael Key), pondering if she can have it all and what that even means for her. Can she do more than sing covers in an a capella group? Can she, as it were, find her voice?

There's romance times two in perfunctory subplots for Fat Amy (paired with Adam DeVine's Bumper) and Barden "freshperson" Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld), who instantly catches the eye of hyper-awkward Benji (Ben Platt). As a new pledge (albeit a legacy), Emily also allows Pitch Perfect 2 to mirror Beca's trajectory in the first film: reacting to the craziness of the Bellas and bringing her own creativity heroically to bear as the new secret of the group's success. Along with Wilson's deadpan rude-and-crudeness, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks return to carry the flag of political correctness as the a capella commentators with specialties in, respectively, blatant sexism and blatant racism.

Banks also directs this sequel (in her feature filmmaking debut) and conspires with Cannon to craft another crossover comedy hit that nevertheless speaks directly to women: until recently an unfortunate rarity in today's movie marketplace. Flying in the face of sexist assumptions, the brash, trash-talking Bellas build self-worth and win team victories, and although politically incorrect (if absurdly funny) cultural stereotyping rears its ugly head again, the film also upends gender stereotypes, as with the wild suggestion that the Green Bay Packers are underground a capella stars.

The run time drags as the storyline sags and the jokes start to feel a bit old (let's not call them one-note—more like three-part har-har-harmony). Though the thrill of invention is gone, there's enough comic fertility and accumulated goodwill to sustain Pitch Perfect 2 through to its splashy and socially optimistic finale, which paints the big picture that arts education invaluably nurtures the whole person and keeps on giving through the years.

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