There are few films that have been released in the 21st century that have been as much of a cultural phenomenon as 2004's Mean Girls. Even though it has been nearly 20 years since its theatrical release, the film has remained a favorite of many, and is still referenced and quoted quite frequently. It also inspired a stage musical adaptation, which hit Broadway in 2018. The musical was relatively popular, and as is the case with most musicals that become successful, a film adaptation went into development. Presenting audiences with the promise that this isn't "Your Mother's Mean Girls", and burying the lede that it is a musical, it is abundantly clear that Mean Girls (2024) looks to update the original film for a Gen-Z audience. But does it succeed in this? Well, yes and no. The film's modernized changes largely work better than one might expect, but the ones that don't work do weigh on the film quite a bit. But beyond this, the film suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, as it doesn't want to be a complete re-tread of the 2004 film, but it also doesn't want to be a copy-and-paste adaptation of the stage version either. This leads to an uneven tone that holds the film back significantly, and begs the question of why it was even made in the first place. Despite some fun moments, the film feels at war with itself, mainly because it wants to have its cake and eat it too. This crucial issue is a major stumbling block for the film, but it manages to stay afloat thanks to a few inspired changes and some standout performances. They may not be enough to fully redeem the film, but they at least make the film more bearable, and help it stay afloat at the very least.
Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), has moved back to the United States after spending most of her life growing up in Kenya with her mother. Upon arriving at North Shore High School, she finds herself experiencing culture shock. Two fellow students, Janis 'Imi'ike and Damian Hubbard (Auli'i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey respectively) help show her the ropes, and warn her of the Plastics, a trio of the school's most popular girls. Despite this, Cady is invited to join them by the school's Queen Bee, Regina George (Reneé Rapp). She then embarks on a mission to infiltrate the group, all while navigating the minefield of high school in the process.
I can't fault this film for wanting to stand apart from the original version, and I appreciate that it makes an effort to do so. The problem is that it still has so many winking moments to the original that end up negating the work its doing to feel fresh and different. But aside from that, the ways that it tries to be its own thing are hit or miss. The Gen-Z-ification of the film is actually more successful than I thought it would be, as it updates the basic premise of the film for a new generation. I was a bit nervous about this aspect, as it had the potential to be cringeworthy, but it never quite reached that level. The integration of TikTok was also better than I would have guessed, and is actually used really well in one of the film's big numbers. However, in updating the film for modern sensibilities, it results in the film feeling sanded down at the edges. Considering that some of the jokes from the original film haven't aged well, it makes perfect sense that some moments from the original have been omitted or rewritten, but it does make the film feel a little sanitized as a result. Part of what makes the original film so great is that the humor is so sharp, but the 2024 version feels a bit dull on this front. Most of the funniest moments are either references to the original or creative revisions to some of its more iconic moments. For all its talk about being a new take on the original, it still feels rather beholden to it. Try as it might, it doesn't quite manage to emerge from the shadow of its predecessor, but it at least makes a noble effort.
What is truly puzzling to me is how the film handles its musical portions. I can respect it for not wanting to be a direct copy of the stage version, but it makes some questionable choices in how it decides to translate it to the screen. It starts out strong, as the opening number is actually quite good, but the energy is sapped from the film once the second number begins. Some of the songs are heavily reworked for one reason or another, and most of the musical changes just do not work for me. Most of my issues lie in Cady's songs, which have been either replaced outright or slowed down significantly. It is quite obvious that Angourie Rice does not have the vocal chops needed for the role of Cady, but slowing the songs down just makes her numbers painfully boring. The worst offender is Stupid with Love, which has been changed from an upbeat, playful number to a generic, slowed down one. It takes what could have been a fun moment and makes it drawn out and bland. Thankfully, not all of the major changes to the musical numbers were bad, as the song Apex Predator has become a duet with Janis and Damien, and it works rather well in the context of the film. I can understand the reasoning behind why the film reworked some of its numbers, but at the same time, it doesn't feel all that necessary, and it could have easily just kept the musical arrangements from the Broadway show mostly the same and it would have been completely fine.
Making a movie musical is no easy feat, as they have so many moving parts. Husband and wife directing duo, Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez, Jr. make their feature debut with this film, and it often feels like they have bit off more than they can chew here. I wouldn't say that their direction is bad, necessarily, but you can feel a bit of their greenness in some of the big musical numbers. So many of the films group numbers seem to take place in one hallway, and these specific sequences utilize oners and tracking shots excessively. Admittedly, some of these shots are pretty good, with one during the number World Burn that is especially impressive. But the repeated use of these types of shots do get old rather quickly. In addition, the camera is a bit too active for my taste all throughout the film, and I really wish it would have had more static moments as so much of what is happening in the larger numbers gets lost in the frenetic movement and editing of the film. Not to mention that the dubbing gets off in a lot of the musical numbers as well, which is a bit distracting. The solo numbers aren't half-bad however, especially the ones that are sung by the character of Regina George. They do have an almost music video-like quality to them, but I honestly didn't mind too much as they have such a distinct visual flair to them, and stand apart from the sameyness of some of the other numbers. It is clear that Jayne and Perez Jr. have some potential behind the camera, but I feel they might need a bit more experience before they fully come into their own.
The film's true saving grace lies in its performances, which are what helps the film come closest to feeling fresh and new. I especially liked both Auli'i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey, who bring new life into the characters of Janis and Damien. Spivey brings just enough of the original version of the character to where it feels like he is honoring the role, but so much of it is his own take. It gives a new perspective to the character, and he is so funny all throughout the film. Cravalho gives one of the best performances in the whole film, as she nails Janis's hardened exterior while also excelling with the character's more emotional moments. She is a clear standout, and the way she allows the character of Janis to have more depth is highly impressive. However, the obvious MVP is none other than Reneé Rapp, whose sheer screen presence is magnetic and alluring. Rapp previously played the role of Regina George on Broadway, and between her work there and here, it is clear that she is a great match for the character. She injects Regina with her own distinct style, and expertly captures the meanness and high status of the character. It is certainly a different type of Regina George than the version Rachel McAdams delivers in the original, but Rapp absolutely sells it, and adds a layer of vulnerability in the process. It is clear that Rapp has some serious star power, and I would not be surprised if this film launches her career to even larger heights.
Mean Girls doesn't fully deliver on its promise of being a new take on the original film, but it is at least a decent effort. As a fan of the original, I enjoyed some of the nods that this version makes to it, but it does clash quite a bit with its desire to be its own thing. The film feels confused, unsure of what it wants to be, and in trying to be both fresh and reverent to the original, it doesn't quite succeed in being either. This, along with its inconsistent tone, and hit or miss filmmaking leave me a bit split on this film. There are a few things in this film I really did like, especially Reneé Rapp's performance and some of the updates it makes. But there are several issues, big and small, that I just can't ignore. At the very least, I can appreciate the effort it makes to be different, even if it does not fully succeed on this front. There is fun to be had, but it definitely pales in comparison to the original.