In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company was known for producing a regular supply of family films for theaters, after which they were shown on television as part of “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (later retitled “The Wonderful World of Disney”). Movies like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Incredible Journey, Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Swiss Family Robinson brought laughter and tears to children and their parents. They weren’t major releases, but they were solid B pictures and very good at what they did – anyone who tells you they didn’t cry at the end of Old Yeller is either lying or they didn’t see the movie. Later in the 1960s and ‘70s, the studio lost its way and contented itself with endless sequels to The Love Bug as well as Don Knox comedies. Young Adult films have become popular these days, but while movies such as The Fault in Our Stars, The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Hunger Games series are excellent films, they definitely skew to the Adult side of YA. Now Disney has brought out a movie that harkens back to their ‘50s films, even though it is comfortably entrenched in the 21st Century: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
The movie is based on Judith Viorst’s excellent 1972 illustrated children’s book, which was part of a series dealing with Alexander’s trials and tribulations. First-time screenwriter Rob Lieber captures the theme of the book, while updating it to cover what can be terrible, horrible, no good and very bad these days.
The story actually takes place over two days. The first day, the day before his 12th birthday, is a normal one for Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould), which is to say crappy. He comes out of his house to catch the carpool to school and sees the girl he’s entranced by, Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer), standing by the car. But as Alexander runs across the lawn, he manages to trip on a sprinkler head. Becky’s brother takes a cell phone picture of Alex and then uses an app to put his face on the bodies of women in bikinis – then emails it to the entire school body. Alex also discovers the most popular boy in school has decided to move his 12th Birthday party to the next day, so no one will be attending Alex’s party. Even Alex’s best friend Paul (Mekai Matthew Curtis) is planning on going to the other party. In science class, Alex manages to get partnered with Becky, but then he accidentally catches her lab book on fire and nearly burns down the science room.
While Alex’s day is horrible, his family has a great one, and the next day looks even better. His mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is in charge of the nationwide debut of “Take a Jump,” a new children’s book, including a celebrity reading by Dick Van Dyke. If it goes well, she’s up for a vice-president position with the publishing house. His father Ben (Steve Carrell) is an engineer who’s been out of work for six months, but he’s asked to come in for an interview with a game design company. Alex’s older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is dating Celia (Belle Thorne), the hottest girl in the high school. He’s planning to take his driver’s license test that next day so he can drive Celia to the junior prom that night. Alex’s slightly older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) has the lead role in “Peter Pan” at the junior high in the afternoon before Alex’s party.
At midnight, Alex treats himself to a birthday bowl of ice cream and wishes that his family could understand the kind of days that are normal for him. When the next day goes spectacularly wrong for everyone else, Alex wonders if it’s all his fault because of his wish. To make him feel even worse, his day turns into a wonderful one.
Director Miguel Arteta is not someone you’d think of first for a project like this. His movies have been more adult comedies such as The Good Girl and Cedar Rapids, and he’s done extensive TV work with shows like “Six Feet Under,” “Nurse Jackie,” and even “American Horror Story.” However he shows a sure hand with the set pieces and a fine sense of comedic pace within the movie’s swift 81 minute running time. Spiritually it’s a descendant of screwball comedies like What’s Up Doc, The Out-of-Towners (the Jack Lemmon original), and Noises Off. While some of the comedy is of the potty variety, it’s the experiential kind that any family with babies has likely lived through. The movie also manages to go its entire length without a noticeable swear word.
Carrell’s comedic chops are well-established, but Garner keeps up with him beautifully. The kids all do well, especially Ed Oxenbould. One fun part of the movie is that Alex is obsessed with all things Australian, while Oxenbould actually hails from Down Under. Rounding out the cast is Megan Mullally as Kelly’s tightly-wound boss, and Jennifer Coolidge as a driving test examiner from Hell.
It’s enjoyable to see a family portrayed positively without schmaltz or bathos. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day brings them closer together, in spite of all that happens. I saw the movie as part of a party of 14, with ages ranging from Pre-K to grandparents and everything in between. They all laughed out loud and enjoyed the movie. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.