MEAN GIRLS (2024) – Review
Get ready for another “full circle film”, an IP (intellectual property) that began in one medium, was adapted to another, and then returns to that original medium. One of the more recent Broadway trends, along with the “jukebox musical”, has been taking an often beloved feature film and adapting it into a big splashy stage musical. And when they’re big hits, then bring the musical take to the big screen. Back in 2005, THE PRODUCERS did the big “whip-around” when the musical based on the 1967 Oscar-winning classic played (briefly) at the multiplex. A couple of years later saw the tune-filled return of HAIRSPRAY. Just a few weeks ago (it’s still playing in many markets) THE COLOR PURPLE did much the same, although it may be more of a “full-square” as it began as a book that became a 1985 Spielberg epic. As the TV hosts might say, “On a much lighter note”, we’ve got a big circle all within the 21st century as an adored (and endlessly quoted) cult comedy from way back in 2004 is now filling the world’s movie theatres with those singin’ and dancin’ divas, the MEAN GIRLS.
In the first of many “tweaks,” we first meet the misfit duo of North Shore High, Janis (Aluli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), who serve as the story’s guide and narrators. Their garage/TikTok studio door opens up to the wilds of Kenya where teenager Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) is told by her wildlife-researcher mom (Jenna Fischer) that her homeschooling is done. They’re moving back to the States, where Cady will be part of the aforementioned school’s student body. Principal Duvall (Tim Meadows) escorts her to her first class, Calculus taught by Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey). Seems that Mama Heron has taught Cady well, but she’s not prepared for the battlezone AKA the school cafeteria. Luckily Janis and Damian take her under “their wings” and point out the different “social groups” (“burn-outs”, “goths”, etc.). Oh, and Cady is warned about the “queens” known as “the Plastics”. The trio consists of gorgeous, dim Karen (Avantika), insecure “lackey/sidekick” Gretchen (Bebe Woods), and their “leader’ the imposing goddess Regina George (Renee Rapp). Surprisingly she welcomes the new, “girl from an exotic land” Cady, and puts her in the runnings as a ‘fourth wheel”. Damian and Janis (who also has a history with Regina) encourage her to join and give them “the dirt” on the group. But things take a drastic turn when Cady becomes smitten with hunky Aaron (Christopher Briney), who just happens to be Regina’s ex (gasp). What will happen when Regina finds out? Cady survived the carnivores of Africa, but can she stand a chance against the sharpened talons of Ms. George?
The young cast expertly hits all the comedic and melodic beats of this musical fable. Rice is the story’s focus and quickly has the audience’s support as the wide-eyed innocent Cady. Perhaps because she’s the film’s heroine she doesn’t have as much opportunity to “cut loose”, although we get a hint of her range when Cady goes “dark”. The much “showier” role is the fierce and fiery (literally) Janis given an energetic power by Cravalho, perhaps best known as the voice of Disney princess Moana. With her third-act retelling of a childhood trauma, she truly ignites the screen. Her rival in many aspects of Cady’s character arc is Rapp as the sadistic “queen B” Regina whose sly seductive smile masks her cruel nature. At times she seems to be a bored cat casually taunting a mouse in its clutches, as she manipulates everyone into being pawns in her schemes. Rapp catutes that camp villainy and proves to be a most compelling crooner. Wood elicits lots of empathy as the needy, over-eager-to-please Gretchen while Avantika scores loads of laughs as the bubble-brained Karen, bouncing off the screen in the big Halloween number. Spivey brings lots of energetic charm to the cliche role of flamboyant BFF supporter Damien, while Birney is the required “eye candy” as the affable, but somewhat bland Aaron. But for many, the movie’s big highlight is the return of original faculty members Fey and Meadows who seem to have been “frozen in time” ( the old Captain America “pause”) as Norbury and Duvall, effortlessly hilarious in their too, too brief bits of screen time, making us wish that two other newbies, but also comedy vets, Jon Hamm and Fischer were given chances to shine. Luckily Busy Phillips picks up some of the “slack” as Regina’s too accommodating, wistful mother.
This reimagining is helmed by the first-time feature film directing team of Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., who use several interesting techniques to “open up” the “Broadway staging’, giving the plot a sense of urgency I like the opening number’s quick location transitions), They’re striving to give this remake its own energy and style, though many storybeats feel lifted right from the 2004 original. But unlike that version, the kids must deal with social media which gets an exhausting couple of zippy montages. Ditto for many of the bouncy dance numbers especially an elaboration of the “school is a jungle” sequence from the first flick, with the “beasts” giving Regina her invisible “walkway”. Aside from those big numbers, the power ballads”, and the phone videos and memes, is this one an improvement over the now twenty-year-old gem? Not especially, but the script and setup by Ms. Fey endures and stands the “test of time”. It’s a very different “take” that should engage those “theatre geeks” (just hope that your multiplex’s sound system is up to it, as ours “garbled” most of the lyrics so it’s impossible to judge the quality of the tunes), but it won’t replace that well-worn disc (or maybe you still have a tape) of those marvelous but often malicious MEAN GIRLS.
2.5 out of 4
MEAN GIRLS is now playing in theatres everywhere