It opens with energy and smarts to spare. Picture this: perpetual franchise (and yes, “Mean Girls” is indeed a franchise, or at least a series of increasingly clever adaptations now stretching into a third decade) breakouts Janis and Damian are guiding us (their already captive audience) through what’s to come, care of a fourth wall-breaking, high-energy musical sequence centered around the tantalizingly-named banger “A Cautionary Tale.” This tale is, of course, all about young Cady Heron, an awkward (but endearing) teenager who is about to move from Kenya (not Kentucky) to a suburban high school and get her life utterly rocked by the social mores of American teenagehood.

Somewhere, someone who doesn’t even go here is yelling, “This isn’t your mother’s ‘Mean Girls‘!,” but actually, it mostly is, now just with song and dance. When “Mean Girls” went to the stage in 2017, it was aided immeasurably by persistence of vision: Tina Fey, who had initially adapted a non-fiction parenting book to make her 2004 teen hit, also penned the book that would bring the, yes, cautionary tale of Cady and the Plastics and Janis and Damian to the Great White Way. In the annals of adaptation-to-adaptation, it wasn’t too shabby. Now, it gets one more step in the adaptation food chain (adaptation-to-adaptation-to-adaptation!) and mostly doesn’t miss a beat.

As familiar as much of this will feel — and as easy as it will be for even casual fans of the original to toss off word-for-word line readings of iconic scenes — the new stars that line Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.’s film add fresh dimension to the “Mean Girls” mythos. Breakout star (and Broadway holdover) Reneé Rapp’s Regina George is a bit more scary than Rachel McAdams’ take (later, she’s positively goofy, a wonderful twist on the role). Auli’i Cravalho’s Janis is a little more warm. Jaquel Spivey’s Damian is a bit more street-smart.

Bebe Wood plays Gretchen, Renee Rapp plays Regina and Avantika plays Karen in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.
“Mean Girls” Jojo Whilden

Some of the bite has been taken out of these storylines (mentions about anyone being “fat” have been toned down, for one, despite it still being a central part of Cady’s plan to ruin Regina; no one has an affair with the health teacher), while others are turned way up (Karen’s “sexy mouse” Halloween costume gets a banger of a song, “Sexy,” which goes much harder on its messaging than the original).

Fey’s script doesn’t get too wild with other updates, thankfully. While the overall cast has been made to feel much more modern — here is a large cast of “high school” characters who actually look like actual 2024 high school students, a full spectrum of interesting kiddos to follow — that tweak from a mostly white original cast feels appropriate and real. Social media, while obviously central to any 2024 teen’s life, doesn’t overwhelm the story (the kids natter away on TikTok-a-like and Instagram-lite platforms, and occasionally text each other key plot movements, but nothing feels forced; this film could even have more of it, a statement this writer does not make lightly).

Not every part of the stage musical translates seamlessly to the big screen. Mostly, the hiccups happen in actual transitions, from scene to scene, song to song. A ditty about Gretchen Wieners’ (Bebe Wood) self-loathing is awkwardly played for both laughs and tears, landing neither. Some of the emotion is sucked out of minor subplots and characters (Christopher Briney’s Aaron Samuels, we hardly knew ye!), and a more abrupt ending than from the original film is a head-scratcher. But its overall winking nature — those self-referential narrators, a few well-placed winks to the camera, song-and-dance sequences that know they’re song-and-dance sequences — go a long way.

“Mean Girls”

So too does the star power, even if it can feel a tad uneven. As Cady Heron, star Angourie Rice, who has already charmed audiences in everything from “The Nice Guys” to “The Beguiled,” makes for a sweet enough leading lady, one whose inevitable downfall genuinely stings (the moment she first lays eyes on Regina is a major high point in the young star’s performance, we can see every emotion and beat flicker across her eager face, even as we know Regina is about to wreck her life and sense of self-worth; ah, high school!). But she’s not the brightest breakout in a film chock-a-block with them, from Rapp to Spivey, and even the always-winning Cravalho (no duh Moana can sing), all of whom steal the show with startling regularity (and get the big, big numbers to match).

Presumably, no one is trying to re-invent the wheel here (cue Karen asking how anyone could even do that if they wanted to), but Jayne and Perez’s “Mean Girls” treads a fine line with relative ease: give something to older fans, and earn some new ones in the process. That’s a lot easier said than done, but this new “Mean Girls” makes it (and, why not, fetch, too) happen.

Grade: B

Paramount Pictures releases “Mean Girls” in theaters on Friday, January 12.

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