Movie musicals have taken the box office by storm, with the December releases of both “Wonka” and “The Color Purple” receiving both critical and commercial acclaim. This movie musical phenomenon has continued into the New Year, with “Mean Girls” being Hollywood’s latest addition to this collection. Based on the 2018 Broadway musical, which was based on the 2004 high school romantic comedy, “Mean Girls” once again follows Cady Heron, played by Angourie Rice, through public high school and “girl world,” but this time with riffs and dance breaks along the way.
Cady has been living in Kenya her whole life — homeschooled by her zoologist mother, played by Jenna Fischer. When her mother lands a new job, the pair moves to a Chicago suburb. Much of the movie’s quirky humor plays off of Cady’s naivety as a homeschooled fish-out-of-water at North Shore High.
Daydreamed musical numbers like “Stupid with Love” capture her childlike innocence and confusion with the arbitrary rules of public high school such as bathroom passes. Where the 2004 film explained Cady’s navigation of “girl world” — Cady’s phrase for American high school girls’ social interactions — 2024 “Mean Girls” expands Cady’s exploration into the Internet realm, drawing greater Internet-based society into the film’s warning against being mean to others.
The original movie starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams has its place in the chick flick hall of fame, and the Broadway musical has attracted a fervent following of its own, so the 2024 film was tasked with the challenge of following these two acts and balancing the numerous musical numbers with spoken scenes made for the big screen.
Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. juggle these responsibilities with a hilarious sense of self-awareness, but their interpretation of social media-dominated Gen-Z culture falls short of true modern teenage interactions.
Right away, the film opens in a vertical phone-recorded video started by Janis 'Imi'ike and Damian Hubbard, played by Auli’i Cravalho and Jacquel Spivey, as the two narrate Cady’s junior year with the Plastics – the most popular clique at North Shore High. The smartphone video is a refreshing reimagination of Janis and Damian’s fourth-wall break in the Broadway musical where the two narrate directly to the audience from the stage.
Unfortunately, the novelty wears off quickly as the movie continues to jump back to this vertical video format, relying heavily on TikToks to communicate Cady’s rise and Regina George’s — played by Reneé Rapp — fall in popularity.
“Sexy” — the upbeat solo of Karen Shetty, played by Avantika Vandanapu — also relies on TikTok as a way for Karen to address the audience, but Karen is not the only one making TikToks to her cover of “Sexy.” Other TikTok videos made using the song as the audio litter the screen, mimicking Broadway ensemble members. Unfortunately, the array of videos is hauntingly reminiscent of performing arts productions made during the COVID-19 pandemic such as “Ratatouille: The Musical” produced on Tik Tok, revealing an eerie disconnection among the actors that was also prevalent among social media users amidst the pandemic — a phase that Gen-Z would love to forget.
Like the overuse of vertical videos, the film’s characters also feel forced. Cady and her crush Aaron Samuels, played by Chris Briney, lack chemistry due to Aaron’s minimal characterization. Every interaction between the film’s main love interests appears as stiff as Aaron’s almost constant smile.
Cady’s transformation from good girl to queen bee feels just as contrived. One minute, Cady is asking for juice at a high school Halloween rager — the next, she is banning Regina from the Plastics’ table for wearing sweatpants. The 2004 film depicts a gradual transition through Cady’s costumes, as Cady’s outfits gradually become more revealing and similar to those of the other Plastics. However, Cady’s 2024 appearance remains awkward and modest until the final third of the movie when she suddenly begins wearing low-cut tops and applying lipstick in homeroom.
Even the iconic Burn Book loses its meaning due to its questionable backstory. Regina’s mother, played by Busy Philipps, explains that the Burn Book was created when the Plastics had their phones taken away in middle school. However, the Burn Book’s new origin story reads like a quick excuse that does not explain the Burn Book’s relevance to the eleventh-grade Plastics and lacks understanding of Gen Z’s true interests.
Analog items like record players, digital cameras and journals are trending among teens, so presenting the Burn Book as a current analog hobby — rather than an old middle-school plaything in the absence of the Internet — would have made much more sense than the quick fix that the new film presents.
Despite these flaws, the new “Mean Girls” still has its good moments. Many of the original movie’s outdated and offensive jokes have been rewritten, such as Cady’s introduction to her new class made by a still-confused Principal Duvall, played once again by Tim Meadows. Rather than accidentally introducing a Black student as the new student from Africa in a microaggressive misunderstanding, Principal Duvall properly introduces Cady as the new student from Kenya while repeatedly forgetting her name.
Other jokes have been removed altogether, such as the stereotyping categorization of students of color into “Unfriendly Black Hotties,” “Cool Asians” and “Asian Nerds.” Tina Fey, writer for all three “Mean Girls” productions, has proved her ability to reflect on her past work and revise it for a newly politically aware teenage demographic.
Another bonus for the new “Mean Girls” is its use of cameos. The film harps on a strong cast, including Rapp, who reprises her role from the Broadway cast. Also from the Broadway cast is Ashley Park, who played Gretchen Weiners and appears in the new film as French teacher Madame Park.
Fey and Meadows return to reprise their roles from their original film as the now-married Mrs. Norbury and Principal Duvall, respectively. Lohan makes a cameo as well, serving as the mathletes competition moderator, back for Cady’s moment of victory.
While Lohan’s appearance and Cady’s triumph are meant to be the most memorable aspects of the competition scene, both are overshadowed by the distracting presence of product placement.
The title slide of the mathletes competition question slidedeck announces SeatGeek as its sponsor. This is not the only brand to make an appearance in the movie. Regina and Cady hold many e.l.f. cosmetics throughout the film with the logo proudly displayed for viewers to see. Cady even names the exact shade of e.l.f. lipstick she is wearing in one scene, bringing the film’s product placement to an overwhelming high.
“Mean Girls” is a quirky and colorful reincarnation of its predecessors, but it loses freshness by blaring brand deals and attempting to appeal to a Gen Z audience. The film tries to grow with its viewers as it revises outdated jokes and incorporates social media into the plot, but it wanes in flair with its failure to understand the very people it tries to appeal to. Sorry, Gretchen Weiners — “Mean Girls” is no longer fetch.