Hearing “that’s so fetch!” produces, for many, an instant wave of nostalgia. The iconic line from the 2004 cult classic movie “Mean Girls,” written by Tina Fey and based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” returned to theater speakers this month in a new musical adaptation. Unfortunately, like Mrs. George’s transformation from a “cool mom” to a “@ #cooooool mom,” the new film’s attempt at reaching a new audience falls flat. “Mean Girls” (2024) feels confused and unearned, the latest in a long line of pop-culture reboots that disappoint viewers by focusing more on selling nostalgia than on producing quality art.
The film, which is based on Fey’s 2018 Broadway musical version of “Mean Girls,” closely follows the plot of the original 2004 film. Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) is a homeschooled teen from Africa whose life drastically shifts when she enrolls in a Chicago public high school. Bombarded with confusing social hierarchies, she befriends Janice (Auliʻi Cravalho) and Damien (Jaquel Spivey), two “outcasts” who show her the ropes. However, when the Plastics — a clique of popular girls composed of queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her entourage of Gretchen Weiners (Bebe Wood) and Karen Smith (Avantika Vandanapu) — take an interest in Cady, Janice and Damien convince her to befriend them and take the clique down from the inside.
This film’s major deviation from the original is its genre: It is a musical featuring music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. While this change seems to justify the film’s existence, it was likely a surprise for many who walked into the theater. The movie wasn’t advertised as a musical; the film’s trailer didn’t showcase any singing or dancing and even used an Olivia Rodrigo pop hit as backing instrumentals. It is as if the film is ashamed of its song and dance predispositions, and this lack of confidence shines through not just in every musical number, but every bit of dialogue too.
The music in the movie sounds extremely different than it did in the Broadway musical. The numbers were stripped of their theatrical qualities and instead produced like pop songs. While this choice was likely intended to modernize the music for a film audience, it creates songs that are dull, emotionless, and, frankly, boring. The film’s insincere relationship with its musical numbers is aggravated by its constant meta-commentary about its status as a musical and its attempts to infuse realism into each song.
In one scene, a minor character references the musical number they just performed in and critiques their friend’s singing and dancing, and at the end of another, Janice and Damien yell at a group of musicians sitting in a tree above their heads to stop playing the accompaniment. While it’s much harder to suspend disbelief and accept that characters are breaking into song when watching a movie as opposed to a stage show, this lackluster attempt to make the music feel diegetic, or occurring realistically in the world of the film, just makes all the songs feel strange and off-putting. It’s hard to resist the urge to let out a groan every time a musical number starts; most of them, with the exception of “Someone Gets Hurt” and “Revenge Party,” felt like they interrupted the flow of the story instead of being integrated into the plot.
While Rapp and Cravalho gave great vocal performances, everyone else in the cast was lacking in the musical department, making it even harder to enjoy the singing. If the film had simply hired actors with vocal training (which should be expected when casting for a musical) and embraced over-the-top, “non-realistic,” campy musical numbers like those in the stage show, the movie would have been far more entertaining and compelling. By not fully accepting its identity as an adaptation of a musical, the movie rejects its main justification for existing, and therefore a large portion of the film is hard to enjoy.
By shying away from its defining genre, the film exists in an awkward limbo where nothing really works. While some new plot points are introduced — Janice is openly queer but her sexuality is not the primary reason for her social ostracism — the movie ultimately over-relies on the original film’s cult status.
By bringing back original cast members and frequently copying iconic jokes word for word, the movie doesn’t make itself different enough from its predecessor to feel justifiable, and instead leaves the audience yearning for the original with each stale reference. It deviates from the original film too much to rely on nostalgia but not enough to cement itself as distinct. The film further tries to make itself relevant by incorporating social media and TikTok, showcasing certain plot points through phone screens and influencer cameos. While these inclusions undeniably bring the film into 2024, they come off as inauthentic and cringey, preventing it from achieving the universal, timeless appeal of the original.
Considering the film’s attempts to embrace a new era, I was baffled by its inclusion of Regina’s weight gain plotline from the original film. As a part of Janice, Damien, and Cady’s scheme to take down the Plastics, they trick Regina into eating weight-gain Kälteen Bars to lose weight. Though this was undeniably inappropriate in the original film, it felt like the filmmakers’ way of commenting on the intense diet culture of the early 2000s and its detrimental effects on teenage girls. Regina’s downfall in this film directly results from her being ridiculed about her weight gain, revealing how female worth was unfairly tied to body image. While diet culture and its impacts on teen girls haven’t gone away in 2024, it’s more widely addressed and criticized. So, when Cady tricks Regina into gaining weight, tanking her self-esteem and seemingly launching her into a depressive episode, it doesn’t feel like poignant social commentary. Instead, it comes off as utterly, unjustifiably cruel.
The movie eliminates the significance of Regina’s weight in other ways, for example removing the lyric “I never weigh more than 115” from Regina’s song “Meet the Plastics” and having her gymnastics fail during the Winter Talent Show be the cause of her social ruin. If the filmmakers really wanted to say something different about body image and female worth, then it makes no sense why Regina’s weight gain is still part of the plot. The movie’s refusal to take risks and differentiate itself from the original pushes Cady and Janice from morally gray to outright mean, making it incredibly hard for the audience to root for the protagonists.
Despite its flaws, this film has fun moments, with Karen’s lively, Halloween musical number “Sexy” and Damien’s hilarious performance of the iCarly theme song in French during the Talent Show being particular standouts. However, this movie ultimately comes across as lukewarm without enough powerful or distinct elements to justify its existence. At the end of the day, “Mean Girls” (2024) and the Hollywood trend of lazily rebooting iconic classics are not so fetch.