Mean Girls: playful, high-energy remake sands down the sharp edges of the original

The stealth musical retread of the 2004 high-school comedy delivers some punchy numbers cut through with low-proof feminism, but lacks the first film’s uncomfortably edgy tone.

Bebe Wood, Reneé Rapp and Avantika Vandanap as the Plastics Gretchen, Regina and Karen in Mean Girls (2024)

Get in, loser, we’re going to another fun, pink-hued, faintly-feminist feature. The much-memed millennial high-school comedy Mean Girls (2004) has been rebooted as part of Hollywood’s strange circular economy, which sends hit films to Broadway and beyond, then funnels them back onscreen, Hairspray style. Still, a film musical must add something to the original, and this bouncy, high-energy remake stages its musical numbers adroitly to bring smart character insights and playful fantasy to the party.

The hallowed story remains unaltered, however, despite the 2024 setting: previously Kenya home-schooled teen Cady Heron (a disarming Angourie Rice) covertly works to bring down Chicago high-school queen-bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her ‘Plastic’ clique, with help from outsider friends Janis and Damian. Even Tina Fey’s sardonic schoolteacher is still in place, along with a host of well-loved lines that are still trying to “make fetch happen”.

First-time directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr’s punchy staging of Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin’s sly – but musically middling – numbers give this retread some grip. They’re at their best mocking the mixed messages of teenage girlhood, as seen with ‘Sexy’, a celebration of anything-as-long-as-it’s-sexy Halloween costume pressures, delivered with zeal by Avantika Vandanapu as dim Plastic Karen. Or ‘Revenge Party’, which brings an art-class craft-paper aesthetic and drama-club zip as Janis and Damian whizz through plans to dethrone Regina.

By staging the songs as an interior narrative for characters, they bring out their teenage yearnings and self-mythologising (a mood the directors mined for twentysomethings in the 2016 TV shorts series Quarter Life Poetry). Choreography also niftily intensifies the mood, with a jungle’s-worth of animal moves unleashed in the school grounds in the social order satire ‘Apex Predator’. Using an exuberant fantasy element in the song stagings gives the film a distinct Glee (2009-15) feel, a show much influenced by the OG Mean Girls.

Jaquel Spivey and Auli'i Cravalho as Damian and Janis in Mean Girls (2024)

To counteract any suggestion of old-school musical stuffiness, the film’s form is fashionably meta, with Janis and Damian narrating as they make the film on a phone (“Oh no, we’re Cloverfielding”), and slick stage-style elisions, like one from a Chicago garage door to the Kenyan savannah. Social media, today’s Burn Book, is heavily present on screen (though the original keeps its key role) with Regina and Cady’s popularity swings expressed via TikTok-style phone videos from North Shore High students praising or trashing them.

What’s been lost though is the sharp, sometimes uncomfortably edgy tone of the first Mean Girls. Though the first film’s casual racism has been thankfully excised (no teen Asian girlfriends fighting over Coach Carr), shaving off the harsher girl-to-girl insults means it’s just not spiky enough. The 2004 film reflected Noughties misogyny, when media jeering at the bodies and behaviour of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and the film’s star Lindsay Lohan would reach peak persecution. Mean Girls’ original call for female solidarity comes out of that toxic time. Now, all that really rhymes with the Noughties are the costumes, which mirror today’s Gen Z taste for Y2k fashion in a welter of teeny tops, pink miniskirts and cargo pants.

Most striking is how turning it into a musical has altered the character balance of the movie. Adding songs shows up Cady as a passive protagonist, pushed into action by Regina (who wants power) and Janis (who wants revenge). Rice is excellent at conveying Cady’s innocence but lacks the appetite that Lohan’s Cady had for a Plastic power-play. Her sweet, light voice doesn’t help, with wistful solos like ‘Stupid with Love’ easily overshadowed by the full-cast bangers.

This time, Regina and Janis are the real motors of the action. Reneé Rapp (reprising her Broadway role) reimagines Regina, casting off that ice-princess persona. Gloriously entitled, full of Main Character Energy, and shot so that she towers over quaking classmates, Rapp stills rooms with vampy, spotlit numbers like ‘Someone Gets Hurt’. But the film’s real standout is Auli’i Cravalho’s Janis, full of vim and snark, her indie-rock anthem ‘I’d Rather Be Me’ blowing away everything else in the last act. The camera pelts after her as she hares through the school, questioning why girls are always pressured to be ‘kind’. Ironically, its a pressure also felt in the film’s neutered play-nice maxim “Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter.”

The makers may be hoping for a Barbie girls-night-out bonanza, banking on the film’s mix of a girly-pink aesthetic with nostalgia, and a shot of low-proof feminism. But this catchy, retooled cautionary tale ain’t that grool.

 ► Mean Girls is in UK cinemas from 17 January.