Section: Arts

Review: “Mean Girls” remake brings music to the big screen

The Plastics still wear pink on Wednesdays, but the 2024 movie musical adaptation of 2004’s “Mean Girls” brings fresh changes amid musical numbers that range from underwhelming to dazzling. The original film, starring Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron and Rachel McAdams as Regina George, remains a cult classic 20 years later as it charts the highs and lows of high school for new student Cady. 

Though the original leaned further into stereotyping its LGBTQ+ characters and lacked racial diversity, its depiction of teenage girlhood and high school life remains relevant as the impacts of cliques and battles for popularity taken to the extreme stays true to our culture today. The real stepping stone in elevating and adapting the story was the Broadway debut of 2018’s “Mean Girls: The Musical,” which followed the same plot points but used the most dramatic moments and iconic characters as fodder for high-energy, poppy, but utterly Broadway songs such as “Meet the Plastics,” “Stupid with Love” and “World Burn.” In many ways, “Mean Girls” works better as a musical because it allows the characters to let their inner divas shine, as the remaining elements of realism can be left behind. 2024’s “Mean Girls” streamlines the musical into a tight and gripping film while retaining the best parts of the original film and updating its most problematic aspects. 

The original film delivered a tight, surprising, funny and honest story of high school trials and tribulations, but as a product of the early 2000s, it flattened some characters like Janis and Damian into stereotypes. The 2004 movie is largely narrated by Cady, but the new version opens with Janis and Damian filming a TikTok about the events of the year. They largely take the mantle of telling the story and become much fuller characters rather than catalysts for Cady’s friendship and fallout with Regina. Additionally, the updated cast is much more racially diverse, with Damian, Janis and Karen being played by people of color. These small but significant updates ensure that the punch lines are the exaggerated flaws of high school and its cliques.

The cast of the new movie stuns with impressive vocals. Reneé Rapp reprises her role as Regina from the stage musical, and Auli‘i Cravalho, widely known as the titular voice of Disney’s “Moana,” delivers as Janis alongside Jaquel Spivey as Damian. Rapp and Cravalho particularly stood out as they belted their way through power ballads that seemed to end far too quickly. Unfortunately, next to their performances, Angourie Rice, who starred as Cady, seemed somewhat forgettable in comparison. To her credit, she portrayed Cady’s shy, people-pleaser-turned-mean-girl disposition perfectly, but her singing fell short compared to her co-stars and previous Broadway performances. Her rendition of Cady’s signature song, “Stupid with Love,” was slow and emotionally flat when compared to the charming and completely besotted version recorded by Erika Henningsen, who originated the role of Cady onstage. For viewers new to the musical version, Rice is a fine Cady, but fans looking for a tribute to their beloved stage musical will likely leave theaters disappointed.

Rice is not solely responsible for the movie’s musical shortcomings, however. The movie versions of many songs, including “Stupid with Love” and “Meet the Plastics,” were simplified for the film, not just vocally, but also instrumentally, as they became simple pop songs and forwent the complex layering of voices that made the Broadway versions so spectacular. “Meet the Plastics” was especially underwhelming as the Broadway version introduces Gretchen and Karen, Regina’s fellow Plastics,  sections that were entirely omitted from the film version. 

Despite this alteration, Rapp’s performance is transfixing and makes her the definitive Gen-Z Regina George. In both the Broadway and movie musical adaptations, Regina arguably takes center stage as the main character — a shift that might explain the change in “Meet the Plastics.” This decision and Rapp’s utter brilliance as a performer make the movie a significant and worthwhile update on the original. Cravalho as Janis also has a much larger role than in the 2004 version, and her delivery makes one wonder how Janis could ever have been so overlooked.

Die-hard Broadway fans may find themselves wishing the remake were truer to the stage version, but in terms of movie adaptations, “Mean Girls” is a success. As an adaptation of a movie that was culturally significant enough to designate Oct. 3 an unofficial holiday and even make fetch happen, the new “Mean Girls” movie pulled off the impossible: it improved on the original. In a delicate balancing act, Tina Fey, who wrote all three versions and played the math teacher Ms. Norbury in both films, realized the errors of the original. She breathed new life into under-utilized supporting characters and kept the elements that work to produce a fresh version of “Mean Girls” that is a delight to watch for first-time viewers and fans of both previous adaptations.

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