[Source: CNN Entertainment]
“Mean Girls” earns its seat at the cool kids table, behind the strength of an insanely talented cast, catchy songs, nods to the original movie and ageless (if familiar) lessons about life in high school. That still leaves the challenge of differentiating itself from the Disney Channel/teen-musical pack, but ultimately, it’s a ton of fun, a too-rare commodity whether that’s at the theater or streaming.
Tina Fey’s fingerprints are all over this adaptation of the musical spun out of the 2004 film, as she and Tim Meadows repeat roles as a teacher and principal in addition to Fey’s screenplay and producing credits.
Still, directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. squarely build the film on the shoulders of the junior contingent, as well as the catchy and clever songs courtesy of composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin.
This time, it’s Angourie Rice (“Mare of Easttown”) as Cady Heron, the wide-eyed newcomer to the world of high-school cliques, having been schooled by her mom (Jenna Fischer) in Kenya.
After some awkward moments Cady falls in with a pair of colorful outcasts, Janis (“Moana’s” (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), who are at first essentially taking pity on her.
To everyone’s surprise, though, Cady receives an invitation to sit with the school’s queen bee, Regina George (“The Sex Lives of College Girls” star Reneé Rapp), who along with her two loyal sidekicks (Bebe Wood, Avantika) lords over the student body, a dynamic nicely encapsulated by the song “Apex Predator.”
A brilliant math student, the sheltered Cady also experiences a bad bout of “calculust,” as she amusingly sings, over Aaron (Christopher Briney), who happens to be Regina’s ex, and thus off limits if she wishes to preserve her spot in the cool-girl tier. Still, she’s operating as a sort-of double agent, infiltrating Regina’s trio on behalf of Janis, while slowly being seduced by the intoxicating lure of sitting atop the teen pecking order.
Layne and Perez Jr. nicely transfer that from stage to screen and into the 2020s, with viral videos that fly by at dizzying (sometimes a little too dizzying) speeds. The core relationships and issues, however, transcend time, and the best of the music unspools with infectious energy, as well Fey-like irreverence toward musical conventions.
“Mean Girls” adds to a strong lineup of recent musicals, with “The Color Purple” and the filmed-from-the-stage “Waitress,” with more (including the two-part “Wicked”) on the way.
The main hurdle is separating this material from the buffet of teens and music via TV and streaming, but frankly, it’s probably enough to give a new cohort a fresh introduction to “Mean Girls,” and the best seat in the house for Cravalho’s rendition of “I’d Rather Be Me” or Rapp belting out “World Burn.”
“Mean Girls” might recycle old tropes about high school’s caste system, but for those who just want a boisterous couple of hours in a theater, it aces that test.
“Mean Girls” premieres January 12 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.