‘Mean Girls’ review: Reneé Rapp and Auli’i Cravalho face off, and we win


Following in the footsteps of Hairspray, The Producers, and Little Shop of Horrors, Mean Girls is returning to theaters, not as a remake but as a flashy musical inspired by a stage production too popular to ignore.

Tina Fey, who wrote the original movie and the book for the Broadway musical, returns to script this incarnation and once more play the flustered teacher Ms. Norbury. However, directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. have an added obstacle: Their source comedy wasn’t just a cult classic; it was a massive hit that spawned countless catchphrases and memes. Plus, this movie musical updates the timeline from 2004 to today, when teens and tech aren’t what they were. 

So how does Mean Girls survive this latest re-interpretation? On its side is a solid plotline of popularity, priorities, and Plastics, plus a promising cast of young stars, including The Sex Lives of College Girls‘ Reneé Rapp, The Nice Guys‘ Angourie Rice, and Moana‘s Auli’i Cravalho. But is that enough to make this movie musical sing? 

How does Mean Girls (2024) compare to Tina Fey’s original?

Tina Fey as Ms. Norbury in "Mean Girls" (2024).

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

The plot between the 2004 Lindsay Lohan vehicle and this singing-dancing version is virtually the same: Homeschooler Cady Heron (Rice) is excited to go to high school and make friends, but soon realizes the cliques, crushes, and rules of cool are more than she bargained for.

Lucky for her, she clicks with the “art freaks”: Janis ‘Imi’ike (Cravalho), who has a snarl and a passion for embroidery, and the garrulous Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey), who is “almost too gay to function.” But this fresh meat who is “really pretty” also catches the eye of fearsome Queen Bee Regina George (Rapp) and her fellow Plastics: desperate-for-approval Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Woods) and the deeply dippy Karen Shetty (Avantika). 

Welcomed into the cool kids’ circle, Cady conspires with Janis and Damian to take the menacing Regina down a peg through various sabotages involving face cream, bulk-up bars, and some scandalous secrets. But between the annual holiday talent show, the vicious Burn Book, a well-timed bus, and prom, all of these teens will learn lessons about self-worth, bullying, and what it means to be a friend. 

There will also be the re-enacting of many famous lines about big hair full of secrets, cool moms, and Glen Coco. However, several of these feel tacked on, making some punchlines feel more like a punchcard. And overall, Mean Girls has lost a lot of its bite. 

This Mean Girls feels too tame. 

Avantika plays Karen Shetty, Angourie Rice plays Cady Heron, Reneé Rapp plays Regina George, and Bebe Wood plays Gretchen Wieners in "Mean Girls."

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

Some of the cuts from Fey’s original script are smartly made. Gone are the tedious race jokes about Black culture (through a white lens) and excised is the thread about the “Cool Asians” hooking up with the predatory Coach Carr. But also gone is the line, “Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.” Early on, this suggests that Fey’s revision was less aimed at clearing away dated or problematic jokes and more about dulling the edges of anything that might risk being provocative. 

Sex is also toned down here, with slut-shaming language largely absent and innuendo kept very PG-13. Most notably tamed is the Halloween section. Where in the original, “The hardcore girls just wear lingerie and some form of animal ears,” 2024’s Mean Girls sport costumes that wouldn’t make a priest blush. So, the contrast to Cady’s creepy costume is less sharp and less funny.

The jokes that remain or are subbed in don’t have the bite of the original. This means both ruthless Regina and furious Janis are gentler versions, more complex and worthy of audience empathy. Which throws off the balance, for better and worse. 

As Regina George, Reneé Rapp is so wickedly fun, it’s almost mean. 

Reneé Rapp plays Regina George and Bebe Wood plays Gretchen Wieners in "Mean Girls."

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

Following in the footsteps of Rachel McAdams’ iconic turn is no easy feat. But Rapp has had plenty of rehearsal, having played Regina George on Broadway from 2019 to 2020. And while the movie musical gives the Broadway show’s song a more pop spin, Rapp makes all of hers a marvel. From the moment her smirking lips appear in close-up, sultry-singing, “My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal,” she has us hooked. 

Curiously, Jayne and Perez reflect Cady’s captivation with a wide-eyed reaction shot that reads as lusty. But while this time around, Janis is not queer-coded but just flat-out queer, Cady’s initial fluster over Regina is never fruitfully explored. So this shot, while impactful, is more confusing than confessional.

Rapp’s star power is explosive. Her side-eye slices deep. Her snarled insults hit like grenades lobbed from perfectly manicured nails. She’s a dynamo whose swagger swiftly establishes — better than dialogue or songs could ever — just how Regina has the school in a chokehold. However, Regina also gets a song about her conflicted feelings about her ex, Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney). Her hair thrown about by a rock-star gust of inexplicable wind, Rapp sells this so well that instead of rooting for Cady to score the handsome senior, it’s hard not to be in Regina’s corner. Especially because Cady has become a shadow of her former self. 

Angourie Rice can’t compare to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron. 

Avantika plays Karen Shetty, Angourie Rice plays Cady Heron, and Bebe Wood plays Gretchen Wieners in "Mean Girls."

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

Some may snark, but looking back at 2004’s Mean Girls, there’s no denying Lohan’s charisma. Cast as an every-girl learning hard lessons about teendom, the ’00s icon was dynamic and entertaining, never overshadowed by more bombastic characters like Regina and Janis. This made the twisted friendship triangle between the three work! But in this Mean Girls, Cady is less-than. Meaning when Regina or Janis aren’t onscreen, the film stumbles.

To her credit, Rice is starting with a disadvantage: She has no voiceover. Storywise, the songs give voice to the ideas present in the original movie. Directors Jane and Perez take advantage of this by replacing the fantasy sequences of teenagers acting like wild animals with sneering classmates turning into beaming backup singers as Cady ponders love and mathematics (“Stupid with Love”). But her monologue about how to dress hot for Halloween becomes a joke-filled song for Karen (“Sexy”). Regina steals her thunder singing to their shared love interest with “Someone Gets Hurt.” And the climactic life lesson “I’d Rather Be Me” goes to Janis — not Cady. All of this undercuts the movie’s main character, making her a supporting player in her own story. 

Auli’i Cravalho stands out as rebel Janis ‘Imi’ike. 

Jaquel Spivey plays Damian Hubbard, Angourie Rice plays Cady Heron and Auli'i Cravalho plays Janis ‘Imi’ike in "Mean Girls."

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

While Cady becomes less of a hero and more of a device to usher audiences through catchphrases and song numbers, Cravalho establishes herself as a stunner. Sure, the Plastics get most of the attention, and this outcast is robbed of some of her surlier lines. Still, like Lizzy Caplan before her, she imbues Janis with a justifiable fury that bursts forth in casual insults and tough love. She is radiant in her rage.

Her chemistry with Spivey is solid, from their opening bars of the intro song, “Cautionary Tale.” But when she sings solo, everyone else fades away. “I’d Rather Be Me” is a banger brought to life not only with Cravalho’s Disney-princess voice but also a growling conviction that pulls you to the edge of your seat.

Cravalho and Rapp are forces of nature. So it becomes a shame we don’t get to see them go head-to-head. Cady is in between them, making her less a hero and more a frustration as the film’s focus on her keeps these two dynamos on separate corners. 

Mean Girls lacks a strong vision. 

Bebe Wood plays Gretchen Wieners, Reneé Rapp plays Regina George and Avantika plays Karen Shetty in "Mean Girls."

Credit: Jojo Whilden / Paramount

To the directors’ credit, their cast is stacked with talent. Avantika makes Karen her own with a delivery that is bouncy bimbo perfection. Wood brings a pointed panic to Gretchen that pops in this stressful setting. The likes of Jon Hamm, Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Ashley Park, and Busy Phillips pop up to play grown-ups caught up in teen drama. But the world they build is uninspired, littered with the familiar and a spattering of phone-recorded reaction videos to reflect its new era.

Many of Cady’s costumes are so close to the original, the character herself feels instantly dated. Song numbers set in hallways are restrained rather than rapturous. The choreography feels more informed by TikTok than Broadway. It’s flashy but lacks emotional weight.

In the end, it seems this team was trying to wed Mean Girls with High School Musical, bleeding out the bits that might have been too jolting for parents so that kids could expand the demographic. It’s a strange call since both movies are PG-13. But there’s no denying this Mean Girls is playing it safe. And that’s not fetch. 

Mean Girls opens in theaters Jan. 12.

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