Recently, the movie industry has adopted the tactic of translating classic children’s stories into films. “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Ramona and Beezus” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” are all based on children’s books that, though they are decades old, have come to grace the silver screen within the past three years. Now, filmmakers have incorporated “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” originally a picture book by Judith Viorst from 1972, into this modern tradition of updating classic kids’ stories into films. The resulting movie is thankfully neither terrible nor horrible.
The Disney-produced film begins with one of 11-year-old Alexander Cooper’s (Ed Oxenbould) “no good days.” This particular day — in which he sets his science class on fire and faceplants in front of “the pretty girl” — is much like any other, and it bears some similarity to the story of the original “Alexander” book. But the film leaves the book behind at this point. This day isn’t just another one of Alexander’s bad days; it’s the day before his 12th birthday. At the thought of living his own future bad days while his family members continue through their seemingly perfect lives, Alexander wishes in desperation that his family members could experience a bad day of their own. When he wakes up the next morning, it seems as if his wish has come true, and the lives of Alexander’s parents (Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner), older brother (Dylan Minnette), sister (Kerris Dorsey) and baby brother (Elise and Zoey Vargas) start to go very, very wrong.
Garner and Carrell are well adapted for their roles, which are similar to parts they’ve played in the past, and together the pair gives the film’s family an absolutely adorable chemistry.
This film is not stupid funny. The disastrous situations that befall the Cooper family, the honest and snappy one-liners — such as Garner’s “I’ve seen every penis in this car” — and the younger actors’ poise and genuineness throughout the film distinguish it from the rest of the booger-filled flicks for preteen boys.
All that said, this film doesn’t necessarily need to be an adaptation of the original “Alexander” story. Certainly, the concept of a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day” is unique to the story, but because the gags — which make up the majority of this film — are similar to those in other kid-friendly films such as “RV,” the “Alexander” tag fails to contribute significantly to the overall plot. The film also shifts the focal point of the story towards the entire Cooper family, rather than focusing on Alexander’s own problems.
This isn’t necessarily a bad move on Disney’s part. It certainly works well for this film by suggesting that parents and kids can bond over shared childhood experiences with the story.
But this potential bonding is complicated by the different kinds of exposure to picture books adults and modern children have. Kids today don’t have the same relationship with physical books, especially picture books, that earlier generations did. E-readers and other forms of diversion have, in many circumstances, overcome the entertainment value of physical picture books. Likewise, parents are pushing their kids at earlier and earlier ages to swap out picture books for chapter books.
The creation of this film by basing it on this particular story, then, seems like a counterintuitive, potentially unprofitable move. But “Alexander” saves itself by diverging from the black-and-white child-centered storybook. This movie is a ball of bouncing bubbliness that, through its action-packed scenes and themes of love and the importance of family, emits an appealing affability. But at the same time, the adaptation — in its effort to appeal to a broader audience — loses its source material and the book’s original emphasis on the child experience by remaking it into a “family” experience. The film certainly isn’t terrible or horrible, but it still might be up to no good.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” opens Friday at UA Berkeley 7.