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Bring It On. And On. And On.

How a sleeper hit about cheerleading became a direct-to-DVD franchise. Plus: which sequel is best.

Bring It On was a sleeper hit when it came out 10 years ago. Fueled by the popularity of then-teen queen Kirsten Dunst, the movie grossed $70 million in the United States. Dunst stars as the very perky, very blond Torrance, heir apparent to Rancho Carne High School’s “cheerocracy.”Bring It On has something for everyone: For pom-pom twirlers past and present, there are plenty of gravity-defying cheer sequences. For those who hated cheerleaders, there is plenty of withering satire. (In the opening sequence, a dozen girls, all bouncy hair and abs of steel, look straight into the camera and declare: “We cheer and we lead/ We act like we’re on speed.”) And for guys, there are hot teen girls in short pleated skirts, among them Eliza Dushku, whose constant bitching about the lameness of it all gives voice to everything you want to shout at the screen.

Bring It On was in the news recently after a team of Tony Award-winning songwriters announced that a musical based on the film is bound for Broadway in 2011. But the film has already spawned a franchise, spanning four direct-to-DVD sequels: 2004’s Bring It On Again, 2006’s Bring It On: All or Nothing, 2007’s Bring It On: In It To Win It, and Bring It On: Fight to the Finish, which came out last fall and has recently been airing on ABC Family.

Direct-to-DVD sequels are a fairly common practice in teen movies—there are twoVan Wilder sequels, twoCruel Intentions sequels, and four movies in the American Pie Presents series, none of which ever saw a theatrical release. There’s money to be made in these films. The original Bring It On was made for $10 million; each of the sequels was made for roughly half that. Such follow-ups almost never feature the original cast. Some, like the American Pie sequels, will have a short cameo from an original cast member. (I hope Eugene Levy is paying for a lovely vacation home based on his numerous appearances in that franchise.) The production values are also usually much lower, and there’s naturally a smaller marketing budget for movies that bypass the big screen as well. But even without a theatrical release, these films can make a tidy profit. Americans spent $18 million on Bring It On: All or Nothing. And $23 million on In It To Win It.

The question of whether the Bring It On sequels deserve an hour and a half of your time is more complicated. With no writers, producers, or cast members from the original, they can be easily seen as shoddy copies made in attempt to milk a few more million out of a movie that probably shouldn’t be a franchise in the first place. At first glance, the sequels do look like pale imitations of the original. Each of them begins with a dream sequence and ends in a cheer-off; there are montages of squad auditions and practice routines; injuries abound (which is true to life; cheerleading is the most dangerous sport for women in high school and college, with more catastrophic injuries than in football); and they are chockablock with important lessons about playing fair and team spirit. But to their credit, the sequels also make room for the moments of self-conscious snarkiness that made the original such surprising fun. Mentions of “cheerwhores,” “cheerbotomies,” and “cheerbarrassments” abound, as do jokes at the expense of that most hallowed piece of cheerleader iconography, the spirit stick.

Herewith, a guide to which of the movies come closest to capturing the charm of the first Bring It On.

Bring It On Again: The first follow-up suffers from being a little too earnest. In a plot that’s borrowed more from Revenge of the Nerds than Bring It On, college freshmen cheerleaders and BFFs Whittier and Monica leave the California State University team because the head cheerleader, Tina (Bree Turner, most recently seen in the romantic comedy The Ugly Truth), is a Reagan-loving control freak who won’t let them choose their cheers—or their boyfriends. Whittier and Monica form their own ragtag cheer squad, which includes, naturally, a sourpuss feminazi and a drama geek and devises its own tepid cheers like, “C’mon, y’all let’s hear it/ We got Stinger spirit.” When the two teams battle for a spot at a national championship, the mean girls get their comeuppance and the geeks get a taste of championship.

All or Nothing: The second sequel wisely returns to a high-school setting, where popular, blond cheer captain Britney (a pre-Heroes Hayden Panettiere) is forced to move with her newly laid-off parents to working-class Crenshaw Heights. After clashing with Camille (Solange Knowles, sister to Beyoncé), Britney decides to join forces with her and enter a cheer competition. The winner of the competition will secure a spot in a Rihanna TV show. (Rihanna appears here in a pre-“Umbrella” cameo—the producers of this sequel in particular seem to have had a great eye for talent.) They blend typical cheer moves with krumping, a kind of street dancing that was making the trend story rounds at the time. Watching Panettiere thump her chest and stomp her feet is both painful and hilarious. “Damn,” one characters observes, “Vanilla Latte got skills.”

The Bring It On franchise has flirted on several occasions with saying something of substance about race but has never quite followed through. In the original movie, when Torrance discovers that the award-winning cheer routines choreographed by her predecessor were stolen from East Compton High, we get a mini lesson on the cost of white girls’ appropriation of black culture. But East Compton, like Crenshaw Heights in All or Nothing, is portrayed in broad strokes. It’s a place where people breakdance before class and must pass through metal detectors to get to homeroom.
In It To Win It: This sequel is a not-so-subtle homage to West Side Story, in which two rival cheer squads, the West Coast Sharks and the East Coast Jets, battle for first place at the Cheer Camp Championships. The two teams clash in style—the West Coast is influenced by music videos and the East Coast is faithful to classic routines—but the Sharks’ captain can’t resist falling for a Jet named Penn, who has a secret: He lied to his parents about being at camp because they don’t think it appropriate for a guy to be a cheerleader.

Male cheerleaders appear throughout the series, but the writers never seem to know whether they should occupy the role of the gay best friend, the love interest, or the lothario. The original has one horny straight guy on the squad and another who calls his sexuality “controversial.” In It To Win It features a gay character who sports a flame tattoo, serious highlights, and a bandana tied jauntily around his head. But in the end of the movie, he is revealed to be a straight guy pretending to be gay—he likes being on the squad because girls change their clothes in front of him. Again, a potentially serious issue is ultimately tossed aside in favor of a plot straight out of Scooby Doo: solving the mystery of who stole the spirit stick.

Fight to the Finish: The latest sequel picks up the racial theme from All or Nothing but flips it around. This time, the mother of Cuban-American cheerleader Lina marries a rich white guy, so Lina must move from her beloved East L.A., where every cholo has a lowrider, to Malibu, where she is confused by the bidet in her en suite bathroom. The central issue in Fight to the Finish is whether Lina will succeed in getting her square stepsister and shy Asian friend to loosen up by shaking their hips to the reggaeton beat. I won’t spoil the ending for you.

There’s no question that these sequels lack Bring It On’s zippy dialogue and cynical attitude. But they aren’t unwatchable. If you come into the films with managed expectations, you’ll find that each one has meticulously choreographed cheers, a few genuine laughs, and a satisfying ending. Thanks to their fine choreography and their signature dollop of self-consciousness, these movies are simply too entertaining to hate. As Hayden Panettiere says in All or Nothing, “Spirit is what makes life fun even when it isn’t.” Just cover your eyes when she starts to krump.