Genre: Comedy and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.
Release Date: January 12th, 2024 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Samantha Jayne, Arturo Perez Jr. Actors: Angourie Rice, Renee Rapp, Avantika, Auli’i Cravalho, Bebe Wood, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Jaquel Spivey, Jenna Fischer
wo teens record a song in a garage on their iPhone, which is a down-to-earth, believable way to ease audiences into the full musical treatment – especially when the very next scene features a character crooning to herself, lungs roaring in the beaming sun of the wilderness. This golden grassland arena of Africa similarly and abruptly transitions to the urban playground of North Shore High School, where classmates spontaneously break out into energetically choreographed dance routines. The original film from 2004 wasn’t exactly a beacon of realism, so this metamorphosis into what aurally resembles a jukebox musical is a suitable one; the suspension of disbelief is even more natural when audiences know the main conceit behind this latest adaptation.
Almost scene for scene, this take is identical to the theatrical endeavor from 20 years prior (Tina Fey, who retains her writing credit, and Tim Meadows also reprise their roles). The rest of the cast receives various, slight edits, but Cady (Angourie Rice) is still the redheaded misfit and socially awkward transplant from Kenya who gets in over her head (“She’s like a Martian”) when she insinuates herself too closely into the artifices and phoniness of the most influential of all the cliques: the Plastics, composed of ruthless leader Regina (Renee Rapp) and her lackeys Karen (Avantika) and Gretchen (Bebe Wood). Is Cady collecting insider information for her nonconformist (but selectively exclusive) pals Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey)? Or is she becoming the very thing she abhors?
Nothing much is new, though the characters sing their introductions, reusing quite a bit of the older picture’s slang (they’re still trying to make “fetch” happen) and infusing it with some minimal modernizations. The digression into rivalry and teen romance is anticipated, as are the comical comparisons between rowdy kids struggling to survive in the high school environment as if wild animals on a preserve, but the music is catchy and lively (even if resembling rather generic pop). It regularly exhibits a rockin’ rhythm and witty lyrics in the moment, though few numbers provide lasting power (save for “Revenge Party,” which is a clear winner).
Curiously, this project works surprisingly well as a companion piece to director Mark Water’s previous theatrical take, paying tribute and making self-aware references, benefitting tremendously just from the existence of a former, straightforward version; countless scenes are funnier and keener with the assumption that viewers will already be familiar with these characters and their conundrums. Power struggles, moral corruptions, self-esteem issues, the importance of popularity and reputation, jealousy, manipulation, and staying true to oneself are evident themes that populate this blunt satire on mean teens, gaining perhaps a sliver of potency from their amplification and isolation in the form of musical sequences that don’t have to rely on genuine interactions or encounters (it doesn’t even expend energy focusing on the significant shift in social media usage, as the core notions about adolescent behaviors remain just as illustratable without it). Singing one’s way through emotions rather than confronting them also fits nicely in this heightened fantasy, even when longer spells toward the finale dispense with the tunes altogether (something that also grew noticeable in recent musicals “The Color Purple” and “Wonka”). Ultimately, though it’s not better as a standalone production, this updated “Mean Girls” is a somewhat sharper, more refined, retrofitted undertaking that offers up a generous serving of entertainment value.
– Mike Massie