“Freaky Friday” first introduced its mother-daughter body-switching narrative as a novel by Mary Rodgers in 1972 and has since been adapted multiple times. At this point, crying out against remakes is a fruitless endeavor. No matter which version of a beloved property one may deem is the ultimate adaptation, another is bound to come along. It’s the nature of having an intriguing story with timeless themes, such as “Freaky Friday’s” parent-child dynamics.
What does matter, however, is the thought and quality put into updating the story. In the case of Disney Channel’s latest adaptation, dusting off “Freaky Friday” to reimagine it as a full-blown, Broadway-inflected musical is more than worth the effort thanks to its talented cast, infectious songs, and lively musical numbers.
Bright but disaffected Ellie Blake (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) is a sophomore who wants nothing more than to participate in The Hunt, an annual all-night scavenger hunt that she’s destined to win because her crush Adam (Ricky He) is the new List Master. Only problem? It takes place on the night of her mother Katherine’s (Heidi Blickenstaff) rehearsal dinner, with her wedding scheduled the next day. It’s been three years since the death of Ellie’s dad, and while Katherine has moved on and become quite the social media homemaking star, Ellie has been ditching school and bickering with her younger brother Fletcher (Jason Maybaum), who’s obsessed with becoming a magician.
While the original novel may not have explained exactly how the body-switching occurred, part of the fun of each update is seeing how this is accomplished, ranging from magical amulets to Chinese fortune cookies containing a spell (and yes, many of these feel woefully out of date now). In this version, mother and daughter swap bodies when they’re arguing over Ellie’s rudeness to stepfather-to-be Mike (Alex Désert) and while holding a giant magical hourglass that had been gifted by Ellie’s dad. It’s unsubtle, but understandable given that this new “Freaky Friday” is a translation of a musical adaptation that ran in a number of cities around the U.S. and needed something visually arresting to display the change. Bridget Carpenter did the book for the musical and comes on as screenwriter here, while Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s original music and lyrics have come along for the ride.
The musical format works well for “Freaky Friday” for a number of reasons. As has been proven by the numerous previous renditions of the story, the particulars of how mom and daughter live each others’ lives, mess up royally, and then learn to value each other, isn’t really important. Those details constantly change, and what’s important is the fun of seeing what awkward situations they’re put in and their even more awkward reactions. Thus, what matters is emotion, not exposition, and musical numbers are the cartwheeling, hand-wringing delivery system for such sentiments.
While most of the soundtrack is filled with toe-tapping earworms, a couple of numbers stand out. In particular, “Oh, Biology” is a delightful ode to Katherine feeling ungainly amidst the rush of teenage hormones in her daughter’s body. Although lyrics like “Oh, biology, what have you done to me? Why can’t my grown-up brain control my teenage parts?” borders on questionable considering the age of her daughter’s crush, it never wanders far enough into icky territory.
Students dancing in class is a classic musical trope, and using school tablets to display beating hearts is a clever, colorful touch. It’s also one of many numbers which allows Zuehlsdorff — who’s energetic and expressive, yet isn’t too theatrical for the small screen — to shine through her vocals and dancing. On the flip side is “Parents Lie,” an impassioned song in which Ellie (in the body of her mother) vents her resentment about broken promises to Fletcher. It’s not splashy. There’s no choreography. But Blickenstaff, who reprises her role from the stage musical, is savoring every bitter lyric.
In an attempt to fit in as much as possible in two hours, some songs from the musical have been cut and some characters have been short-changed. The enmity between Ellie and Fletcher feels more like lip service, but at least the mother-daughter friction is palpable. Fortunately, condensing the story doesn’t detract from the nimble storytelling, inventive lyrics, and charming multicultural cast.
Calling the dog Boris (the name of the daughter’s crush in the original novel) is also a very telling touch, one that indicates the amount of care that has gone into this production but also its absurd sense of humor. “Freaky Friday” never loses its spirit, and it would not be a surprise if Disney Channel tried to adapt Rodgers’ sequels into follow-ups. After all, creating a franchise worked for “Descendants” and “High School Musical.”
“Freaky Friday” premieres Friday, Aug. 10 on Disney Channel.