Not just another manic Monday.
Freaky Friday is considered a cult classic Disney film amongst my generation. Starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis, the 2003 adaptation was a thoroughly entertaining film that explored the relationship between a mother and daughter with extremely contrasting personal lives. Unbeknownst to me, a musical adaptation of Freaky Friday was created in 2016 and this past month, the Disney Channel has taken it upon themselves to create a film of that musical, and surprisingly – it works! Seeing the promotional material, you’d hardly even know it was a musical. However, the songs are catchy and fit in well with the story, which has a unique twist of its own, mixing together to form a fairly engaging family film that rivals both the likes of Disney Channel’s recent hit Descendants, and the original Freaky Friday before it.
It’s important to know that the musical adaptation of Freaky Friday is only loosely based on the original film. There is no fortune cookie randomly given to a mother and daughter by some magical Chinese woman. Instead, the musical opts for a magical hourglass given to both Katherine (the mom) and Ellie (her daughter) by their late husband/father before he died. While arguing – and singing – Katherine and Ellie swap bodies and are forced to learn what it’s like to live in each other’s shoes. Unfortunately, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time, as Katherine is getting ready for her wedding tomorrow, and Ellie is getting ready for The Hunt, the annual schoolwide scavenger hunt that she intends to win this year, along with her friends, Karl and Monica. The pair soon realize that if they get their hands on Katherine’s hourglass, which she sold to a pawn shop, they may be able to reverse the spell.
While the overall plot may differ from the original Freaky Friday, the musical’s characters encounter similar conflicts as Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan did 15 years ago. Katherine, in Ellie’s body, begins to fall in love with a classmate, and it’s here that the adaptation’s first red flag arises. The song surrounding this dilemma, entitled “Oh, Biology,” is damn catchy, but it’s also deeply inappropriate. It’s understandable that a teenager may have feelings for another classmate and not know how to act upon them, but being a mother in her daughter’s body, the entire premise is downright creepy. Katherine nearly acts on her fantasies for this boy, and their sexual tension throughout the film is just plain weird when you’re always reminded she could be his mom.
Ellie, on the other hand, has to deal with the business of Katherine’s wedding planning, and her plotline is far superior to her teenage daughter’s. Played expertly by musical veteran and original Freaky Friday cast member Heidi Blickenstaff – of Something Rotten fame – Ellie-possessed Katherine is the standout performance. Her portrayal of a mom controlled by her daughter is both funny and heartwarming, with many moments that made me question my own relationship with my parents. Through Katherine, Ellie is able to bond with her younger brother and her soon-to-be stepfather, and she’s given a new perspective on their views of her. One scene that really affected me involved a conversation between Ellie-possessed Katherine and her fiancé Mike, as he explains his intentions within this new family. His words open Ellie’s eyes and show her that he’s not trying to replace her father, but rather to follow in his footsteps and be the father figure they deserve in his stead. This scene felt really deep for a Disney Channel original movie, and it touches on a subject that’s very important for children in this day and age.
[Blickenstaff’s] portrayal of a mom controlled by her daughter is both funny and heartwarming.
Katherine-possessed Ellie’s story isn’t quite as influential; rather it feels as though it is included for comic relief. Katherine delivers a lot of passive aggressive quips through Ellie, played by newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff, to combat school bullies. She thinks as a mother would, trying to plan out her actions and speak rationally. One such scene involves the mother and daughter visiting the principal’s office together, wherein Ellie does all the talking, much to the teachers’ vexation. Some of these moments were humorous, as it’s a unique change of pace to see a teenager take charge and speak her mind in such a manner. But mostly, whenever Ellie came onscreen the tone shifted and I wasn’t as drawn into her conflict as much.
That’s the charm of Freaky Friday.
Perhaps the best moment of Freaky Friday was the song “Parents Lie,” in which Ellie-possessed Katherine explains to her son that not everything parents say is true. She tells him how parents keep secrets from you, and “they lie when they tell you they’ll always be there.” It’s a moment in which two siblings learn to face a harsh reality together, and one that cuts particularly deep for a comedy. That’s the charm of Freaky Friday; the ability to see someone else’s life through their eyes, all the while knowing what you know. Ellie would probably never talk to her brother and tell him the lessons she’s learned over the years, but through her mother’s body, she can. Likewise, Katherine can use Ellie’s body to tell off bullies and see the hardships of modern-day high-schoolers. Disney does a great job of portraying these hard-to-swallow pills, and compared to something like High School Musical, this film shows off a harsher yet just as important side of growing up.
When I first saw that Freaky Friday’s music was written by Tom Kitt, I knew what I was heading into. As a semi-fan of his previous musical, If/Then, I knew that this musical probably wouldn’t be the best thing I ever heard, but it was bound to have a couple winners. I must say I was pleasantly surprised, as Freaky Friday’s soundtrack was much better than I had imagined. The opening number, “Just One Day”, was the big song that caught me off guard. For those not expecting a musical from this latest adaptation, this was a blast of a way to open things – as the song ramps up, harmonies ensued, and by the time we reached the end of the song, a full-on quartet was occurring. I was hooked.
The major letdown of this musical stems, ironically, from the lack of musical numbers. There’s a large amount of songs left out of the Disney Channel version compared to the source material, which is somewhat understandable as it’s hard to cram a whole musical’s worth of content into a two hour TV movie. Still, though, Freaky Friday feels, in its second half, like the “musical” moniker was completely dropped, and there’s a huge gap with no songs at all. It’s in this second act that the film starts to take a downward turn. Beginning with the song “Go,” which is an uninspiring anthem that subtly urges you to follow your dreams, Freaky Friday starts to slog along to the finish line. There’s a whole subplot involving Ellie’s brother running away from home, and while it’s obviously spurred by the “Parents Lie” revelation, the whole thing just feels like a forced effort to get all the characters together to solve the overarching conflict.
It’s in this second act that the film starts to take a downward turn.
It doesn’t help Freaky Friday’s case that the majority of its supporting cast is unlikable or underutilized. Katherine’s assistant Torrey is introduced as a semi-important sidekick, but she’s quickly tossed to the wayside. Ellie’s friends Kurt and Monica, while accompanying her throughout the film, don’t do much to support her struggles, and they even decide to walk away halfway through when she “hurts their feelings.” On top of all this, the school bully, Savannah, is just insufferable whenever she’s onscreen. The only likeable secondary characters are Mike, and Ellie’s brother Fletcher, played by Jason Maybaum of Raven’s Home fame. Together with the film’s protagonists, they make a wholesome, believable family that emulates the typical Disney Channel family vibe. Making Mike and Katherine an interracial couple was a nice progressive touch, as well.
All of the dancing in Freaky Friday was choreographed by John Carrafa, a two-time Tony nominee for his work on Urinetown and Into the Woods. While his work may be best suited for a stage – which makes for some goofy-looking scenarios in classrooms and kitchens – there’s no denying that the dance moves are on point in this film. I still find myself thinking about the choreography in “Oh, Biology” and how I wished I was dancing along in that class with them. The dances made even the worst songs a bit more enjoyable, and that’s extremely important to a musical. Overall, these musical moments definitely felt Broadway-worthy, until the music stopped and things got slow again. This frequent in-and-out of the action left a bad taste in my mouth every time, but fortunately, the taste was always short-lived.
Seeing a school get up and dance to upbeat love songs brought back the feeling of being a kid again, watching High School Musical and Camp Rock on Disney Channel. Getting to stay up late and be a part of a television revolution was so cool for me as a child. Does that mean I think Freaky Friday will start a revolution in that same vein? No. But I do think that compared to today’s DCOM powerhouse Descendants, Freaky Friday can certainly hold its own as an enjoyable family musical. While it definitely has its narrative dips, and its songs can be sometimes strange or completely miss the mark (not unlike If/Then before it), this film successfully gathers up its shortcomings by the end and goes out on a high note. It’s during this grand finale musical number that I realized, “hey, I actually liked that movie.” It isn’t perfect. It’s no Kenny Ortega joint. It’s no Curtis/Lohan cult classic. But it’s a cute little story about family and forgiveness that touches on important issues and teaches lessons through the use of song and dance. Now, if that’s not what a musical should be, then I don’t know what is.