Mean Girls 2024: Tina Fey’s Broadway musical movie hits the right notes

Mean Girls 2024: Tina Fey’s Broadway musical movie hits the right notes

The phenomenon of a non-musical movie being adapted into a stage musical that then gets adapted into a movie is surprisingly common, as recent films like 2023’s The Color Purple and the 2022 Matilda demonstrate. Some of those adapted movie musicals have even eclipsed the original movie versions in pop culture legacy, like Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors.

The 2024 Mean Girls is the latest entry in this very specific genre. It’s adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical, itself adapted from the 2004 film starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. The new Mean Girls probably bears more of a burden than past movie musicals adapted from musicals adapted from movies, in that the original movie left a huge impact on pop culture, and came out right at the dawn of the internet age, which set it up for a specific sort of cultural longevity.

Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., making their feature-film debut, have their work cut out for them, even armed with a script from Tina Fey, who returns after penning both the musical and the 2004 movie. They make some baffling choices, like keeping some of Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond’s songs from the Broadway show that don’t really highlight the cast’s vocals, at the expense of cutting some more fun and dynamic ones.

But they also do a pretty neat job of updating the minutiae of high school drama for the social media age. Bolstered by a (mostly) stellar cast, who make the iconic characters their own and show off their spectacular singing voices, Mean Girls is a fun little update, though it never transcends the experience of the original movie.

[Ed. note: This review contains minor setup spoilers for Mean Girls (2024), as well as the original 2004 movie.]

The three Plastics and Cady sitting on Regina’s pink bed, about to write in the Burn Book

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures

Like the first movie, 2024’s Mean Girls follows Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teenage girl who transfers to North Shore High School for her junior year after a lifetime of being homeschooled in Africa. She struggles to fit in, until artsy Janis (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) take her under their wings. Unexpectedly, the school’s most popular and ruthless student, Regina George (Reneé Rapp), decides to invite Cady to sit with her and her loyal lackeys, the Plastics: dim-witted, pretty Karen (Avantika) and insecure secret-keeper Gretchen (Bebe Wood).

At first, Cady dismisses Janis’ warnings about Regina, but then Regina swipes Cady’s crush Aaron (Christopher Briney) from under her nose, for no reason other than petty jealousy. So Cady joins forces with Janis and Damian to infiltrate the Plastics and take Regina down.

The cast of Mean Girls (2024) has a lot of big shoes to fill, both from the original movie and from the Broadway musical. Most of them do step up, flexing their vocal chops and bringing their own flair to the larger-than-life characters — except for Rice. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t have Rapp’s or Cravalho’s strong singing voices, or Spivey’s or Avantika’s comedic timing. She brings a nice wide-eyed naïveté to Cady, but her singing doesn’t hold up, especially compared to the rest of the cast.

This wouldn’t be such a glaring problem if the first few songs weren’t mostly centered around her. To accommodate Rice’s singing voice, Cady’s initial solo was changed, and some of the more vocally challenging parts in the group numbers went to other characters. The first segment of the movie only flirts with being a musical: Jayne and Perez Jr. dangle better singers and numbers in front of the audience without fully committing to them, instead dragging out a few uninspired songs like the new-to-the-musical “What If?” and Cady’s romantic overture “Stupid With Love.”

Damien, Cady, and Janis peering through a hedge in Mean Girls (2024)

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures

Thankfully, those boring songs aren’t indicative of the full-throttle musical theater that the movie does eventually embrace. When Jayne and Perez Jr. let the movie be the musical it’s supposed to be, it’s an amazingly good time. The two best numbers — “Revenge Party,” an ensemble song-and-dance routine that overlays a montage of Cady, Janis, and Damian getting back at Regina, and “World Burn,” Regina’s big villain song — are absolutely splendid. They’re also the ones that most play up the musical version’s theatricality, and embrace what it’s meant to be.

Musicals are very often heightened versions of reality. After all, how else do you explain the periodic breaks into song and dance? As such, all the characters are even more heightened versions of their original counterparts. And the actors deliver. Cravalho and Spivey are dynamic, grittier, and more dramatic than the first movie’s versions of their characters, which makes sense in a musical with huge group numbers that they headline.

Renee Rapp as Regina walking through the halls of the school, phones taking pictures of her, in Mean Girls (2024)

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures

Rapp’s Regina, for her part, is more cutthroat and ruthless, with an iconic voice that pierces through the rest of the soundtrack. Avantika’s Karen is more empty-headed; Wood’s Gretchen is more insecure. It all mostly works — except, again, for Rice, who plays up Cady’s ingenuity a little too much in the first act, which makes her transition into a verified Queen Bee harder to buy.

The story’s second act — from both the original movie and the Broadway stage version — is sped up and ultimately jumbled in this adaptation. Fey’s script doesn’t dwell enough on Cady’s heel turn into a mean girl to make the transition believable. It also doesn’t help that Rice never quite sells Cady’s ruthlessness. She seems a bit too deer-in-the-headlights, wide-eyed and pushed around by too many other people.

Both the original movie and the Broadway musical spend time with the new version of Cady, the popular Plastic who’s hardened and becomes everything Regina once was. But Mean Girls (2024) doesn’t. Everything about Cady’s arc is a bit flattened and less, well, mean.

Damien, Cady, and Janis stand on the edges of the cafeteria in Mean Girls (2024)

Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount Pictures

The rest of Mean Girls, though, is enough fun to almost make up for a mediocre lead. The middle of the movie — right from the iconic sexy costume Halloween party to Regina’s bus incident — is the most fun, since it fully indulges the musical theatricality and also pushes Cady to the sidelines in bigger musical numbers. There are some fun period updates in the movie, which takes a lot of the story’s usual gossip and phone calls to social media platforms like TikTok. (There’s one hilarious running gag featuring rapper Megan Thee Stallion.) And there are enough nods to the source material to please fans. (Did I cackle at the Glen Coco mention? Of course I did.)

Mean Girls (2024) likely won’t replace the original 2004 movie in anyone’s hearts. The start and the end — the most Cady-focused parts — aren’t strong enough to carry the rest of the film, especially when comparing Rice’s take on the character to Lindsay Lohan’s original movie performance, or Erika Henningsen’s strong vocals in the original Broadway cast recording.

But Rapp, Cravalho, and the rest of the cast hold up the movie, and generally turn it into a good time. There are enough infectious songs to make up for the dull ones, though the ratio isn’t quite enough to solidify it as a transcendent musical experience. (There are always a few duds in a musical, but there should be more bangers.) Overall, the 2024 Mean Girls hits the right notes, continuing the original movie’s legacy instead of totally revamping it.

Mean Girls debuts in theaters on Jan. 12.

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