‘Mean Girls’ is a bright, timely musical comedy; Paul Giamatti gleams in ‘The Holdovers’; ‘The Canterville Ghost’, a talky, so-so animated lark

Teen queen: Angourie Rice in ‘Mean Girls’.

MEAN GIRLS ***1/2 (112 minutes) PG
A sad yet unavoidable irony underscores the otherwise crowd-pleasing, brightly coloured cinematic confection of Mean Girls, the film version of the Broadway comedy musical based on the neo-classic 2004 high school comedy starring Lindsay Lohan.

Peppered with a swag of catchy song and dance numbers, many filmed with long single takes (very nicely done), the film casts Australian actress Angourie Rice as Cady Heron, the awkward high school newcomer.

As everyone in the Western world knows – is there a household that doesn’t possess a Mean Girls DVD? – Cady is persuaded by two clique-hating outliers to infiltrate the cool girls group “The Plastics”, headed by Regina George (Rene√© Rapp).

Her mission is to gain intel so the group can be destroyed, only Cady falls victim to the attractions of popularity, sacrificing friendship for the superficial charm of being schoolyard queen.

Written by and starring Tina Fey (30 Rock), who wrote the 2004 film, the shebang is very energetically directed by first-timers Samantha Jayne & Arturo Perez Jr., who present a pleasing and very nicely manicured piece of fluff that happens to have landed at the right time.

The film’s central message promoting inclusion and tolerance – repeatedly punching the point that you shouldn’t judge or denigrate people just because they’re different – might have seemed quaint only a few years ago.

In today’s environment where social media thrives on instant judgement and character assassination, this notion seems especially relevant, which is a tad sad.

Sadder still is that it probably won’t make much difference, a dour reality that ultimately doesn’t detract too much from what is a funny and joyous revisit of one of the better teen comedies of the century thus far.

Paul Giamatti in ‘The Holdovers’.

THE HOLDOVERS **** (133 minutes) M
As big a disaster as the Golden Globes telecast was, it got a few things right, one of which was giving a Best Actor doorstop (Musical or Comedy) to Paul Giamatti, easily one of America’s best character actors, for his splendid performance at the heart of The Holdovers.

In Alexander Payne’s lightly barbed, leisurely paced period comedy-drama, Giamatti (so good in Payne’s 2004 film Sideways) plays Paul Hunham, a humourously inflected curmudgeon of a teacher at a 1970’s boarding school.

He’s made the mistake of failing the son of a major donor, and so is made to preside over a group of students who are unable to leave the snow-bound grounds to make it home for Christmas.

Showing his signature, distinctly admirable disdain for the contours of conventional film narrative, Payne slowly uses Hunham’s interactions with the boys to burrow into his backstory, revealing the flaws and disappointments that account for his irascible disposition.

There’s no doubt fans of Giamatti and Payne (who also did Election, About Schmidt and the wonderful Nebraska) will consider themselves well-served by an unhurried and rewarding film designed for mature cineastes who enjoy films that allow time for characters to actually breathe and evolve into full-blooded, loveable people.

The titular character in ‘The Canterville Ghost’.

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST **1/2 (89 minutes) PG
There are some laughs in the first few reels of The Canterville Ghost, a so-so non-Hollywood animated feature that clocks in as the latest in a very long line of film, TV and radio adaptations of the 1887 short story by Oscar Wilde, his first to be published, as it happens.

Set during the vintage era when electricity was beginning to replace candles, the basic set-up involves a “modern” American family moving in to their new home in England, a grand old place called Canterville Chase.

The manor is inhabited by a clumsy 300-year-old ghost, imprisoned there for the alleged murder of his wife. He’s meant to be haunting the place but the family, upon discovering his presence, remain unimpressed, especially Virginia (voiced by Emily Carey), the rebellious teen daughter of the brood.

Teaming up with the Duke of Cheshire (Freddie Highmore), who lives one mansion down, Virginia investigates the mysterious curse that keeps the ghost from being freed. Her curiosity leads to a trail of clues and other figures from the netherworld.

Though it boasts a stellar voice cast – Stephen Fry (also a producer), Imelda Staunton, Toby Jones, Hugh Laurie (Fry’s longtime comedy chum) – The Canterville Ghost ranks only as a passable lark that starts well but becomes increasingly talky as the story plods on. The characters spend an increasing amount of time trying to decode the curse, making the film’s brief running time actually feel quite long.

As for the standard of the animation, it definitely doesn’t hit the high-water mark we’ve been conditioned to expect, even from middling studio fare. It looks nice enough, especially when it comes to the grand interiors and landscapes, but the elasticity and movement we see in films with obviously bigger budgets are noticeably missing here.

It’s competent but unexceptional stuff. Advice: wait for it to stream.