Dir: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld. US 2003. 94 minutes

Legally Blonde proved a surprise hit when it was released during the summer of 2001, grossing over $96m in the US and a solid but not spectacular $45m internationally. While this flag-waving sequel - being released in the US over the July 4 weekend - should quickly break $100m stateside, its prospects overseas are less assured. Witherspoon may have picked up some new fans with last year's popular Sweet Home Alabama, but MGM should expect about the same international box office as before.

The vivacious Witherspoon returns as Elle Woods, the fashion-conscious sorority queen who proves that ditzy and brainy can co-exist nicely in the same blonde package. The first film found Elle - usually dressed to the nines in pink and almost always accompanied by her sartorially-sophisticated Chihuahua, Bruiser (Moondoggie) - turning snooty Harvard Law School on its head and earning the respect of faculty and student-body alike.

LB 2 finds the pair storming Washington after Elle discovers Bruiser's biological mother imprisoned in a science laboratory, an unwitting test subject for, horrors!, a cosmetics firm. Determined to make animal testing illegal, Elle gets a job as a legislative aide to Congresswoman Rudd (Field). She shows up for work on her first day in a tailored pink Chanel suit, complete with Jackie O. pillbox hat - earning the nickname 'Capitol Barbie' from her office mates. Especially disdainful is Rudd's chief of staff, Grace (King).

Nor does Elle's maddeningly sunny disposition and perky spirit go over well with Congresswoman Libby Hauser (Ivey), the intimidating head of the all-important Commerce and Energy Committee, which will consider Elle's bill. After several frosty encounters, the ice is finally broken when Elle notices Hauser's Delta Nu sorority ring. Hey Presto, the two are best friends. Bruiser, meanwhile, helps her win over another crucial vote, Congressman Stanford Marks (McGill).

While the setting, storyline and specific obstacles of the sequel differ markedly from the first film, Legally Blonde 2 follows a similar trajectory and retains the same humour and spirit of the original. The snobby "old boys network" is now the Washington establishment rather than the Harvard elite; the working-class salt-of-the-earth types whom everybody but Elle ignores include returning friends such as beautician Paulette (Coolidge), and new friends such as the politically-astute doorman at Elle's apartment building (comedian Newhart). Once again the loyal sisters of Delta Nu marshal their forces to assist one of their own; and, of course, the unsinkable Elle herself hasn't changed one bit.

That is both the film's strength and weakness. Fans of the original will warmly embrace the new picture, while viewers who didn't respond to the first film's very tame, very broad humour aren't likely to change their minds. Although it's difficult to imagine, LB 2 actually seems to be a little dumbed-down from the first film, in that supporting characters like Libby Hauser and Stanford Marks are played much broader than the two Harvard professors played by Holland Taylor and Victor Garber. Luke Wilson makes a brief reappearance as Emmett Richmond, Elle's former boyfriend, now fiance, but he isn't called upon to do much.

In a summer filled with big action-adventure films, many of them disappointing, Legally Blonde 2 at least offers an alternative and should do especially well among girls and young women. Even those who can't stomach the silliness should be able to appreciate the effervescent Witherspoon.

Pro co: a Marc Platt Production, in association with Type A Films
US dist: MGM
Intl dist: 20th Century Fox
Prods: Marc Playy, David Nicksay
Exec prods: Reese Witherspoon
Scr: Kate Kondell, based on characters created by Amanda Brown
Story: Eve Ahlert & Dennis Drake and Kate Kondell
Cinematographer: Elliot Davis
Prod des: Missy Stewart
Ed: Peter Teschner
Music: Rolfe Kent
Main cast: Reese Witherspoon, Sally Field, Bruce McGill, Regina King, Dana Ivey, Bob Newhart, Jennifer Coolidge and Luke Wilson