Everett Collection (3); David Bukach/Disney Channel
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August 10, 2018 at 04:05 PM EDT

Mary Rodgers published her novel Freaky Friday in 1972. And she wrote the screenplay for the first adaptation of the novel, released into theaters in 1976 by the Walt Disney Company.

Disney being Disney, the company has released three further versions of Freaky Friday: A TV movie in 1995, a big-screen remake in 2003, and now a musical variation airing this week on the Disney Channel. The central concept’s always the same. Mother and daughter switch places, discover the particular difficulties they both face on a typical weekday, reach emotional closure via mutual understanding. But watching the Freaky Fridays in chronological order, you see the great world spinning forward around the central archetypes. A happy marriage becomes a divorce becomes a remarriage becomes a momtrepreneurial media event. Cheap analog thrills like skateboarding and junk food evolve into garage pop-punk and glorious smartphone apps.

The 2003 version of Freaky Friday turned 15 on Monday. The musical edition airs, appropriately, tonight. It’s a good moment, then, to look back over one of Disney’s most fascinating and strange ongoing franchise ideas. Which Friday is the freakiest?

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Freaky Friday, 1976, starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster

1976 saw the wide release of Taxi Driver and the festival debut of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, which both star Jodie Foster as a tough, eerily eroticized teenager grown up way too soon. “And then everyone around her winds up dead” is the one major plot point separating Foster’s brilliant performances there from her appearance in the first Friday. You imagine playing young Annabel (and mom Ellen in Annabel’s body) must’ve been a lark, or an explicit attempt to lighten up Foster’s image. You’ve plumbed the depths of teenage loneliness, and urban rot, and angelic innocence wave crashing against eerily sexual maturity. Now it’s time for water skis!

But much of this first Freaky Friday plays weird today. In this version and only this version, the mom (Barbara Harris) is happily married, “happily” maybe in quote marks, “exhaustingly” more accurate. Dad (John Astin) sticks around the house long enough to mumble some inadvertently creepy things to his daughter-in-wife’s-body. He grins when he says “You never called me daddy before,” so that’s something to tell the therapist about. Daddy’s a doofus out of the Father Knows Best era. Planning a big party at the marina for his clients, he gives his wife some marching orders: “You just show up looking beautiful, and I’ll do the rest.”

Meanwhile, zany Harris as the daughter-in-mom’s-body hangs out with neighborhood boy Marc McClure (Boris Harris), the kind of teen who must’ve experienced The Graduate as a dating handbook. This is the one Freaky Friday where the potential perversity of the premise is most obvious, like we’re just a couple moments away from the most disturbing version of what happens when Mom and Daughter switch bodies. At one point, Foster visits dad’s office. He’s got an attractive secretary, and maybe the secretary is too attractive, and there is some suspicion, and for a brief moment there’s a love triangle between Dad and Employee and Precocious Daughter Who’s Actually Mom.

We’re halfway to Ice Storm territory. And there’s a great moment where Harris is beset upon by domestic horrors: the carpet cleaners, the maid, the doorbell dinging, the phone ringing, the groceries getting delivered. It’s the nightmare of suburban ennui taken to Marx Brothers extremes, and her washing machine floods the house, and her husband’s calling to say he needs more help with his society function and she ought to wear that “slinky black dress.”

Foster’s playing an early Disney notion of “rebellion,” a hippie square enough for Ford voters. She looks believably bored, too cool for this lame farce. It’s worth watching, though, just for the incongruously epic car chase at the end, with steel-eyed Foster careening a lollipop-red droptop VW bug down the L.A. River, giving those cops what for. C+

Everett Collection

Freaky Friday, 1995, starring Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman

Hard to find today but worth the hunt, this ABC telefilm stars Long as mom Ellen. She’s divorced, smokes anxiety cigarettes, has memories of the glory activist days of second-wave feminism, and faces eternal frustrations as a single mom plus lead designer at the clothing design firm she co-owns. It’s two great performances: Long-as-Prologue-Mom exuding the confident desperation of an adult making time for everything except herself, and Long-as-Daughter-in-Mom’s-Body — a gangly-limbed rollerblader.

Well-matched by Hoffman, a nominal Disney kid who’s way more ’90s Nick, rocking saggy-chic clothes and a grunge-era grimace. The problems here cut deeper than “Dad’s throwing a party at the yacht club.” If mom can’t find a fashion retailer to carry her new designs, the whole company goes out of business. (The IRS, embodied by Drew Carey, is already closing in.) Meanwhile, at school, Hoffman’s juggling excessively complicated diving-team drama, mediating between powerful factions, trying to teach everyone a valuable lesson in compromise and team spirit. There’s a new man in mom’s life, Bill (Alan Rosenberg). He’s the co-owner of her company, and he’s impressively imperfect, learning his own lessons in potential stepdaddery. You sense, distant but present, the messy reverberations of divorce, a family layout no other Friday will ever approach.

Director Melanie Mayron was working with a very TV movie budget, but her style’s low-key inventive with artful long takes and wide angle lenses. At one point, daughter-in-mom’s-body goes to a fancy restaurant for an all-important design meeting with a fashion retailer. It’s Frieda Debny, played by Sandra Bernhard in a performance that grabs this already great movie and hurls it into the stratosphere. Impatient, she declares: “I wouldn’t wait for my own mother this long. And after years of analysis, I almost like her.”

She seems to realize, rightly, that the designer she’s talking to is a 12-year-old with no clue about fashion. There’s one long take where the camera moves all around their table: Ellen explaining what kind of clothes kids like, her designs, Frieda’s face reacting. Bored, Frieda looks away, hearing a couple waiters at the restaurant complaining…about her: “Frieda Debny’s the worst tipper in town!” She looks back at Ellen just in time to hear an insane request: Would she, successful style-industry businessperson, consider coming to a local elementary school for a big diving competition? The look Bernard flashes her is the single funniest weary glare anyone has ever rocked in a Disney movie:

Did I mention Eileen Brennan plays a school principal? Did I mention Andrew Keegan as the teen love interest? Did I mention this whole film builds to a rapturous debut of a new clothing aesthetic? Stripes on plaids, patterns that don’t match, every color mulching brown, the ’90s! A masterpiece. A

Everett Collection

Freaky Friday2003, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan

Curtis plays a widowed psychologist planning a big wedding to solid human Mark Harmon. Meanwhile, there’s Lohan (pre-Lohan), whose Anna is planning a big audition for her band, “Pink Slip,” a name simultaneously too lame yet precisely lame enough to sound like an actual TRL rock band. The audition is the same night as the rehearsal dinner, oh no! But, the rehearsal dinner is at Sunset Tower and the audition is at House of Blues: Ah, sweet dream, that cinematic universe of Los Angeles where everything’s one block away on the same side of Sunset Boulevard!

The vibe is westside fab: jokes about how much Angelenos need their shrinks, shopping on the Promenade, school in the Palisades. Love interest Chad Michael Murray wears a Von Dutch shirt, asks “You like the Hives?” as an opening gambit toward flirtation. There are “No Beepers,” we learn, allowed in the detention room. Lohan was a Disney It Girl — a bit like Foster in the ’70s — and her musical chops are put on display in a not-bad end-credits performance. Pink Slip’s a solid phony band, led by badass lady guitarists singing snark-adjacent G-rated nonsense, “Don’t wanna grow up/I wanna get out.” The film’s great fun, directed by Mark Waters with effusive energy. Lohan plays the kind of stern-smart adult figure she would never believably play as an actual adult. Curtis is hilarious, and when she gives a wedding toast, the emotion! She’s playing sad daughter, still grieving her father, telling her mother it’s okay to be happy with her new husband — all that while trapped inside Mom’s body. Calling home now, swear I’ll call more often.

Lohan later stated that her character was supposed to be “really Goth,” a style that shifted when she showed up to her audition in “really preppy” attire. The idea of a Goth Disney heroine sounds unlikely — or maybe totally obvious, if you think the point of Sleeping Beauty is proving that Aurora is a total snooze. And because the Freaky Fridays are always set in some version of the present starring some version of normal human characters, they provide a helpful demonstration of the Disney filter applied atop reality: ’70s kids without drugs, ’90s kids who don’t swear, a garage band safe enough for Mom’s approval, the possibility of a Goth played by that nice girl from The Parent Trap. I sometimes think that one unified theory of Disney’s success is that people like dangerous things but they LOVE safe things that approximate danger.

Which also describes, to a certain extent, the pop-punk aesthetic. That era of music fills the 2003 Friday‘s soundtrack: Simple Plan, American Hi-Fi, Bowling for Soup, the Donnas, and whither the Hives of yesteryear?  One quibble. In the first Freaky Friday film, the brain switch happens just because. Mom and daughter just go with the whole “we switched bodies” thing, like it’s no big deal, like this is cool so let’s roll with it. By the 2003 film, there’s a whole, like, mythology — a horrible one, involving a magic fortune cookie in a Chinatown restaurant and the miserable phrase “strange Asian voodoo” and a ticking clock to reconcile by the end of the day. There’s this new crush of narrative conception, like a movie has to work hard to explain itself. When did fictional characters lose their chill? When did we? B+

David Bukach/Disney Channel

Freaky Friday2018, starring Heidi Blickenstaff and Cozi Zuehlsdorff

Writer Bridget Carpenter adapted this latest version from her 2016 musical, itself a loose conglomeration of certain narrative notions from the 1976 and 2003 adaptations. Maybe that’s why the modernizations feel a bit too cosmetic, trending topics plugged in Mad Libs style. Now Blickenstaff’s Mom is planning her own wedding so she can get featured in a photo spread for Down the Aisle Magazine. It will really help her brand value, without media coverage they’ll go bankrupt! Zuehlsdorff rocks an early Bieber hair swoop, has a pierced belly button, and is all about a social media game called “The Hunt,” which sends the local kids on a townwide scavenger hunt.

There’s something very flashmob-y about the latter story point, though I guess you could more generously describe it as “a relic from the Pokemon Go” era. None of the Freaky Fridays really seem to grasp ahold of their era’s respective teen cultures. (It’s possible “teenager” is the one age demographic Disney will never quite fully crack: too old for family-friendly entertainment, too young to feel nostalgic about family-friendly entertainment.) But there’s something especially synthetic here, a “smartphones yay!” message diametrically opposed to every recent study about the state of America’s deeply depressed teens. You feel there’s something Hollywood still isn’t getting about contemporary teens — and when you see the kind of teen characters Hollywood conjures up, you understand why so many actual teens just watch YouTube.

Then again, the supporting cast of this Friday is much more diverse than in the previous editions. And no one uses the awful phrase “strange Asian voodoo,” a plot point carried unreconstructed into Lil Dicky’s “Freaky Friday” song from earlier this year. So progress has been made. But the tunes are forgettable, so bland they make Teen Beach 2 look like High School Musical 3.

Zuelhsdorff and Blickenstaff give good age-crossed performances, but the tone around them is all over the place, fart jokes and dead-dad ruminations. The “too-much-plot” problem recurs: Now there’s a magic hourglass, and they have to find another magic hourglass, and the dead dad left them the magic hourglass. The look is a bit listless, nigh multicam. There’s a song about a frog dissection, which isn’t bad. There’s a song about a smartphone app, which made me stare out the window for a long time wondering how we let reality get here. In 2041, some current-day kid will claim this film is a masterpiece. They will be wrong. D

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