In his bestseller The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell details how certain cultural entities or social ideas spread through the public consciousness and become big. One of the chapters focuses on “stickiness,” something that makes an element or idea stick with its target audience. In that section, Gladwell refers to two famed television programs aimed at young children: Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.
While the former is a timeless classic of public broadcasting, the latter was touted for being more efficient with educating children. It has something to do with its “stickiness.” While Sesame Street had short segments and sly pop culture references that confused youngsters, Blue’s Clues focused on a few recurring characters and had pauses to give its target audience the time to absorb the information. Also, the show repeated the same episode several times in a week, giving a young audience the time to learn from experience. As a result, Blue’s Clues stuck with its tot sleuths, who looked forward to solving new interactive mysteries.
I bring up this “stickiness” factor to explain why Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day could be a very big hit with the five-year-old crowd and why their parents and older siblings will likely sit through it grumpily. Similar to the Nickelodeon program above, the new Disney comedy – very loosely based off of the popular children’s book by Judith Viorst – foreshadows each major story event and prepares young children to figure out how the pieces come together.
The first scene of the film is one of the last chronologically: 12-year-old Alexander (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) explains via voice-over how there is no such thing as a bad day. He is in his family minivan, which looks like it is returning from the Western Front. His older sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is sniffling and dressed up in a green costume. Alexander’s older brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is in a light blue tuxedo, clearly put off by this wardrobe choice. Baby Trevor is smiling, his face covered with green highlighter. Alexander’s flustered parents, Ben (Steve Carell) and Kelly (Jennifer Garner), are in the front seat, relieved that they are almost home. When they exit the car and open the front door, a venomous growl (coming from off-screen) greets them. They all scream and panic.
The rest of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a lead-up to this climactic moment of family terror. Young kids getting used to the art of storytelling and who will get a kick out of figuring out how the family gets to this moment will be amused. (They may also remember many of the slapstick comedy bits, including a prominent one involving a CGI kangaroo, from the film’s trailer.) Their laughter will likely be cued from familiarity rather than spontaneity. And therein lies the main problem with Disney’s pleasant, charming, inoffensive, very bland movie: it is far too predictable for any man, woman or child who has seen more than a handful of comedies.
The plot updates to Viorst’s famous children’s book are likely reminiscent to those of the tween crowd who adore Disney Channel sitcoms: Alexander is a socially awkward middle-schooler with a crush on his science class lab partner, siblings who put an effort into embarrassing him at every turn and an upcoming birthday party where nobody will come. (Even his closest friend is going to the party of a more popular kid, which will feature a band, frozen yogurt and most of his school’s student body.) On the eve of his 12th birthday, Alexander makes a wish that his family would understand his good grief.
That Disney-fied dusting of magical realism becomes a part of the lives of Alexander’s family members the next day. Kelly is on the cusp of a big promotion at work – she markets children’s books – but wakes up way too late to deal with a now unavoidable situation. Ben, an unemployed aerospace engineer, has to deal with his crabby infant Trevor on the same day as a big job interview. Anthony has his junior prom coming up in the evening but has to pass his driver’s test before he can pick her up. Emily is the lead in the school’s production of Peter Pan but comes down with a cold.
As Alexander soon realizes, misery loves company. However, it is somewhat odd that the title character receives less screen time than any of his beleaguered siblings and parents. He reappears at several times during this titular day (which Alexander recites in its entirety more than once) to try to help steer his family in an optimistic direction. However, Oxenbould – whose protagonist’s infatuation with Australian culture is a mildly clever allusion to the actor’s native country – is overshadowed by the colorful cast around him.
Carell and Garner are fine as his parents, although it is curious how the latter’s conflict – her journey to get a promotion at work – is dropped halfway through the story, only to re-emerge at the end with a very predictable conclusion. Even better are Dorsey and Minnette as Alexander’s attention-grabbing siblings. Dorsey, who played Brad Pitt’s daughter in Moneyball, steals her scenes as a driven thespian willing to do anything to make sure the show must go on. Minnette, who played Hugh Jackman’s son in Prisoners, has a gentle charm and sharp comic timing. His character is an obnoxious doof, but is not self-centered enough to make Anthony an annoyance. Meanwhile, TV veterans Megan Mullally and Burn Gorman get the chance to tick off the “sneering authority figure in a family film” box off of their character-acting checklist, as Kelly’s sniping boss and Emily’s perfectionist drama professor, respectively.
However, despite the best efforts of the endearing young cast, the actors are stuck with characters that have not yet graduated to the world of sitcom-level humor. At one point in the film, after a rather painful moment, Ben tells Trevor that “Daddy wishes he could swear.” Alexander is quite tame, even by the standards of a live-action family comedy from the Mouse House.
Perhaps taking its cues from Gladwell’s “stickiness” idea, Miguel Arteta’s film works hard to become an enjoyable, active moviegoing experience for kindergartners. Despite the manic energy of the cast, the plot takes its time hopping from one point to the next, giving its target audience the time to catch their breath. There are deadlines, but the screenplay (from rookie scribe Rob Lieber) does not push the conflict forward very speedily. Alexander feels padded, even though it runs only 75 minutes before credits. This slower pace can help young children interact with the elements of the story, rather than engage adults who could be invigorated by speedy bits of surprising humor.
There are also several glaring continuity errors which makes one wonder why a film from a major studio couldn’t have gone for a few more takes. In one scene, Alexander’s geography teacher picks the countries they have to research for an assignment by spinning a classroom globe and stopping his finger. At one point, he assigns a student Lebanon, but anyone glancing at the globe will see his finger rests on the United States. In another moment, a zit on Anthony’s forehead shifts to the other side.
Without a frantic pace or much in the way of surprise, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day will please young children who have not seen a lot of movies. Those under eight will “stick” with the zesty humor and actively try to figure out how we get to that scene in the minivan. Everyone else will probably have to just appreciate the film’s cast, all aces, who give the material a spirit and energy that does not exist on the page.