Making a great family film is tricky. You have to appeal to kids, but also the parents to get them into the cinema. You can’t talk down to them, but you can’t be too adult with them either. Not too dark, not too light. Not too crude, not too intellectual. A solid story, but lots of action. In the 80s and 90s, that balance seemed to come with great ease, but these days only Pixar seem to get it right, and even they haven’t in a while. ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’, Disney’s attempt to adapt the beloved 70s children’s book by Judith Viorst, suggested nothing special was going on here either, so it comes as a great surprise that there’s some magic going on in this terrific little family film no-one is paying that much attention to.
Alexander (Aussie Ed Oxenbould) got the short straw in his family. His older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is the most popular guy in school, his sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is playing the lead in the school play, his little brother Trevor is cute as a button, and his successful parents Ben (Steve Carell) and Kelly (Jennifer Garner) are eternal optimists. Alexander, however, stumbles through a never-ending series of bad days, something his family never seems to notice. On his twelfth birthday, he makes a wish that his family could have as bad a day as he has, and to his surprise and his family’s great misfortune, his wish comes true.
'ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY' TRAILER
Miguel Arteta’s film has little resemblance to the book it's based on, only retaining Alexander’s bad luck, his idolisation of Australia and the book’s central message. The supernatural construct might seem tired and cliché, but for some reason, it feels fresh and exciting here, probably because opening up the misfortune to the entire family gives the film greater scope. If we’ve simply had a film of watching Alexander stumble between disasters, it would have gotten tedious or emotionally draining. Instead, the chaos is shared around, and in ways that are beautifully specific to the hopes and fears associated with each family member, even Baby Trevor. Arteta and screenwriter Rob Lieber don’t chicken out on the tortures they inflict, each dilemma more wicked and cheeky than the last. You have overdoses on cough syrup, a genuinely shocking misprint in a children’s book, the driving test from hell and being set on fire in a pirate blouse, and all with tremendous irreverence and energy. By comparison to most classic family films, the boundaries ‘Alexander...’ pushes aren’t that impressive, but in a time where family films buckle under the weight of either insane political correctness or revolting crude humour, this film has found the perfect balance and a refreshing sense of daring.
The terrific ensemble also helps. The family itself is beautifully constructed, Steve Carell offering a much more controlled demonstration of his comic anarchy, while Jennifer Garner showing just how silly she can be. Minnette and Dorsey are also very much in on the joke too, throwing themselves into ridiculous and embarrassing situations with relish. The real star though is Australian actor Ed Oxenbould as Alexander. This great young actor has such an easy charm and manner, and approaches each moment with surprising honesty. Where less talented actors would observe the chaos in his family with relish, Oxenbould sells the idea that Alexander is actually upset by it and what he has done with his family, making him more relatable, an everyman within the chaos. He’s also refreshingly normal, as typical a twelve year old as you could find. This kid has a great career ahead of him, there’s no doubt about that. There’s also some great cameos from Dick Van Dyke (involving the misprinted children book) and the great Jennifer Coolidge.
Ed Oxenbould has such an easy charm and manner, and approaches each moment with surprising honesty.
Regardless of the well-oiled machinery making this film work, the most important thing for a family film is that it’s entertaining, and ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ has this in spades. It also holds true to the heart of Viorst’s book that, in the end, everyone has bad days and we can’t let them get us down. That seems like a more important message to give kids than the usual crap cinema feeds them. This is a great little film with everything in balance - laughs for the kids and the parents, relatable without being patronising, the right amount of light and dark, charmingly crude yet carefully intelligent, well-plotted with lots of action to bolster it, and a terrific cast to pull it off. Even though all the attention was directed at the turgid ‘Maleficent’ this year as Disney’s live-action tentpole, this great little film is most definitely more worthy of your time. And the kids are going to have a blast!