“Mean Girls,” an update of the 2004 hit film and adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical, is a fun, if familiar, retread. There are some improvements from the original — the main cast is more ethnically diverse — but not that much has changed. The film is still queer and bitchy, which die-hard fans will appreciate when it hits theaters Jan. 12.
For viewers unfamiliar with this cautionary tale about corruption, betrayal, and getting hit by a bus(!), “accused lesbian” Janis (Auli‘i Cravalho) and the “almost too gay to function” Damian (Jaquel Spivey) recount the story in direct address, telling of how Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) enters North Shore High School after years of being homeschooled in Africa. As she tries to find her place in the jungle that is the cafeteria, Cady befriends outcasts Janis and Damian, who teach her about the various cliques, and warn her about “The Plastics” — Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood from “Love, Victor”), Karen Shetty (Avantika) and the Queen Bee, Regina George (Reneé Rapp, reprising her role from the Broadway show). Regina, a self-proclaimed “massive deal,” makes an impressive entrance and Rapp’s strong voice proves she is, indeed, the Queen.
The musical scenes in “Mean Girls” enhance what is, on the surface, a slight story about “fear, lust and pride.” Janis and Damian convince Cady to bond with the Plastics so she can spy on them and help bring Regina down. Moreover, Cady develops a crush on Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), who happens to be Regina’s ex, and, because friends don’t date friends’ exes, Cady has to keep this potential relationship secret. As Cady enacts sabotage, offering Regina “diet” bars that, in fact, make her gain weight, Regina exacts revenge using the “Burn Book,” which features negative comments about various students and causes the girls in the junior class to reevaluate how they treat each other.
The film features some high-energy musical numbers (though some songs from the Broadway musical either did not make the cut or were replaced entirely), such as “Apex Predator,” where Janis and Damian warn Cady about Regina, but it also includes some nice interior solos. These include “What’s Wrong with Me?” where Gretchen contemplates her existence as Regina treats her poorly, and a fabulous, if all too brief scene of Damian singing in French. The catchiest song, “Revenge Party,” is a highlight with the school hallways being home to an extended choreographed musical number sprinkled with tons of colorful confetti. The costumes are also fabulous with Regina rocking some looks that emphasize her imposing beauty.
For the most part, “Mean Girls” adheres closely to the original. Perhaps too closely, with many lines and scenes repeated almost verbatim from the 2004 film. But there are some scenes that expand on ideas from the original. Cady learns, as Damian dramatizes with plushies, what transpired that caused former friends Janis and Regina to become bitter enemies.
The differences between the original film and this version are sometimes improvements. An extended sequence in the original where Cady tries to get Aaron to discover Regina is cheating on him, is much more efficient in this film. And an underage sex joke involving Coach Carr (Jon Hamm) has thankfully been removed. Another key difference is the Plastics’ performance at the high school talent show. The teens sing to a different holiday song, and an epic fail that occurs is captured on cell phones, which only magnifies the horror and the hilarity.
However, this musical version of “Mean Girls” generally focuses more on the messages than the laughs, letting characters express themselves in song. When Janis belts out “I’d Rather Be Me,” it is an empowering showstopper. Auli‘i Cravalho, like her character, is full of attitude and steals the film with her energetic performance. As her co-conspirator, Jacquel Spivey may lean into a gay cliché, but he generates most of the film’s laughs with his sassiness and exaggerated expressions.
Cravalho and Rapp, both have the pipes, and the film is best whenever they are on screen. Rapp’s voice is terrific, even when she is emitting a bloodcurdling scream that echoes across two scenes when Regina becomes outraged.
As Cady, Angourie Rice is appealing, but she is actually the least interesting part of the film because the supporting characters are all much more vibrant. Sorry (not sorry) to be mean, but Rice feels miscast here. She never makes Cady’s code switching credible, which detracts from her transformation from innocent to Plastic.
It is less bothersome that among all of the actors playing high schoolers, only Avantika is an actual teen.
Reprising their roles from the original are screenwriter Tina Fey, as math teacher Ms. Norbury, and Tim Meadows, as Principal Duvall. (They are a couple now.) And yes, Lindsay Lohan, the original Cady, has a cameo and so does Ashley Park, who received a Tony nomination for her role as Gretchen Wieners in the Broadway show. Also of note, Busy Philipps is terrific as Regina’s mom, and a good physical match for Rapp.
While a “Mean Girls” update may not be entirely necessary, to quote the teens’ made-up vernacular, the film is mostly “grool” and “so fetch.”