The difference between “formulaic” and “contrived” is often the difference between a light comedy and its sequel. That’s certainly the case with “Sister Act” and “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.”

As far-fetched as the first film was, we were quite willing to accept Whoopi Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who witnesses a murder, ala “Some Like It Hot,” and is relocated to a convent where she hides out as Sister Mary Clarence until the trial. And we were certainly willing to believe that Sister MC could inject a little life into a convent choir in which the average age was 101.

But to believe that this ordinary-voiced woman doing Motown tributes could become a Vegas headliner who’s recruited to go to the school she attended as a child and work her magic again—this time helping her fellow nuns as a teacher. A music teacher. The only thing is, the high school kids are obviously talented, and as we go through the formula a second time, well, it’s kind of like doing a crossword puzzle all over again. Some of the fun and anticipation is flat-out missing.

I’ll say this, though. “Sister Act” came out in 1992 and “Back in the Habit” in 1993, and at least one of the “Glee” creators—Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Falchuk—had to be a fan. The entire second act revolves around a state competition, and the third act lets us see different choirs and acts from different schools before the St. Francis students perform last. And as they watch some of the talent from the wings, they say things like, “They’re good. They’re really good. Why are we even here?” You know. The same things that the “Glee” kids said in Season 1 as they were entering their first rounds of competition.

“Sister Act”
Goldberg stars as Doloris, who is getting ready to throw the gift of a purple fur coat (I’m serious) in the face of her married mob boyfriend, Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel), because it has his wife’s name inside it. But as she enters the room, well, her timing isn’t exactly the best, because she witnesses the execution of a limo driver who obviously did something big to piss off Vince. Like the guys in “Some Like It Hot” she goes on the lam, but straight to the cops. And a sympathetic Lt. Eddie Souther (Bill Nunn) decides the safest place to hide a lounge singer is in a convent run by a Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) who’s a stickler for rules, and a Father (Barnard Hughes) who runs the parish with a little less spit-and-polish.

Doloris, re-christened Sister Mary Clarence, proceeds to pick up two sidekicks in Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy) and Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena), and a reluctant admirer in Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes), the music director she replaces. Naturally the church is in danger of being closed, and so it falls to the newly rejuvenated choir to wow the blighted neighborhood and its dwellers and to keep the church from closing its doors.

It’s a cute enough plot, albeit totally predictable, with just enough warm fuzzy moments to make it work.

“Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit”
Alas, we get the same “school is going to close” crisis in the sequel, along with the exact same situation—only this time it’s high school kids instead of geezers. And so many things ring false or (redundant) that it’s hard to know where to begin. Smith is back, but with no tension between them it’s a thankless part for her to play. James Coburn no doubt feels her pain, because as bean-counting bureaucrat Mr. Crisp, all he does most of the time is to walk into a scene, react with some quizzical expression, and retreat. And great actor that he is, you can never tell that he’s probably wondering, “Why did I ever agree to do this?”

What’s more, this outing there are additional priests who are so ragtag or derelict-looking that you’re reminded of the scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in recent years. I would let any of the three near my kids, looking as bedraggled as they do.

Both films lack significant side plots, but you really notice the problem in “Sister Act 2.” Toward the middle of the second act the writers probably realized that, because then we get one “troubled” girl, Rita (Lauryn Hill), who’s as resistant to Sister Mary Clarence’s ideas as the boys in “Hoosiers” were to that darned new coach. And of course she has a mother who disapproves of her singing. There’s as curious contradiction, though. This school is set in the middle of a blighted neighborhood with graffiti more prevalent than robins, and toughs sitting on every street corner. So you expect Rita’s home situation to reflect that. Meanwhile, her mom looks like Claire Huxtable and when she forbids her daughter to participate, daughter says, with some resignation, okay. Huh?

Things may pick up with the competition, strictly because of the entertainment value of the performances, but the plot never gains any traction. It feels like a piece of cardboard under the tires of a car stuck in snow. Put it under their, and the tires just spit it out.

The sequel is far more tedious to sit through, though “Glee” fans will probably appreciate the basic premise with young people instead of older nuns, and they’ll probably think that third-act competition redeems a week first two.

Both films are rated PG for some mild language and violence in the first film, which makes them suitable for family viewing.

Given the color stock used in the early ‘90s, both films look very nice in 1080p. Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, they feature bright colors, some fairly crisp edges, and enough detail to make them an improvement over the standard-definition DVDs. If there were any artifacts, I didn’t notice them. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer appeared to be a solid one.

The audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. The DVD features an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track with a French language track as well, and English SDH subtitles. Kind of a curious mix, if you ask me.

There’s nothing much to say about the audio. It falls right in the middle of the Blu-rays I review. Nothing to wow about, nothing to complain about. When the songs get going, so does the soundtrack. Otherwise, there isn’t as much ambient sound as you’d expect—well, except when we’re driving through Reno or Vegas.

This is a three-disc combo pack, with DVDs of each film stacked on top of the same spindle on the left side of a standard size Blu-ray case, and the two movies together on a single Blu-ray disc. There are no bonus features on the “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” DVD, and only a few on the “Sister Act” DVD:  an “Inside Sister Act” featurette and two music videos (“If My Sister’s In Trouble,” by Lady Soul, and “I Will Follow Him,” by Deloris and the Sisters). The same three features appear on the Blu-ray disc.

Bottom line:
Light and fluffy as it is, “Sister Act” still has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and some warm fuzzies as well as some believable action, and that makes it a 7 out of 10 in my book. But the sequel? It’s more like a 5. That puts this two-movie collection at a 6 out of 10.