Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Sunday 26 May |
Saint of the Day: St. Philip Neri
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”



David Ives - published on 10/10/14

Good, clean, non-subversive family fun

Over the past year, Walt Disney Pictures has received a lot of heat from conservative critics.

The blockbuster “Frozen” was accused by some of having a secret homosexual agenda (a valid interpretation, but like the X-Men franchise, “Frozen” could just as easily work as an allegory for any group of outsiders), “Planes: Fire & Rescue” was seen by many as a cynical 90 minute long toy commercial (maybe, but merchandisers would sell “Wolf of Wall Street” action figures if they thought there was a market for it), and “Maleficent” was derided for being over-the-top feminist revisionism of the highest order (no excuses there, that’s pretty much what it was).

Of course, none of that criticism stopped Disney from raking in billions at the box office, but still, you have to imagine at some point, someone in their board room got tired of reading all the criticism, looked around and asked, “Could we please make at least one motion picture that doesn’t offend or insult anyone? You know, a nice innocuous PG-rated family film with zero agenda like we used to churn out decades ago?”

Okay, so I can’t be absolutely certain that’s how things happened, but what I do know is that “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is the answer to that hypothetical question. And the answer is yes, Disney actually can still make that kind of movie.

“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” began as an award winning children’s story published in 1972. The book opens with a young boy named Alexander who wakes up to find gum stuck in his hair and then proceeds to have a series of progressively worse disasters as the day wears on. At bedtime, Alexander’s mother assures him that’s how life is sometimes and maybe the next day will be better. The end.

Sure, it’s not a story with a lot going on in it, certainly not enough to pad out a feature-length film, but the book’s basic premise that some days just stink and the best you can hope for is to simply get through them rang true with a lot of kids (and the adults reading the story to them as well). The film version of  “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” has to add a lot of stuff to the story to fill up its 81 minute running time, but it still manages to hold onto that premise to almost the very end.

Like the book, the movie begins with Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) waking up to discover a wad of gum in his hair, but it quickly introduces us to the rest of his more fortunate family. There are his parents, Ben (Steve Carell), an out-of-work astrophysicist whose unshakable optimism has allowed him to adjust perfectly into his new role as a stay-at-home father, and Kelly (Jennifer Garner), a mid-level executive at a children’s book publisher slowly working her way up the corporate ladder.

We also meet Alexander’s siblings Anthony (Dylan Minnette), a well adjusted high school junior about to be crowned Duke of his prom, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), an aspiring young actress who just landed the lead role in her 8th grade’s production of Peter Pan, and toddler Trevor, who remains blissfully happy as long as he has his favorite pacifier in hand (or mouth as the case may be). Everything seems to be going well for everyone in the family.

Except for Alexander that is. Nothing ever seems to go right for him. He plods along through defeat after defeat, heroically resigned to his fate as a Charlie Brown type of loser. But after experiencing the absolutely worst 24 hours of his life on the eve of his birthday, Alexander breaks down and makes a wish that his seemingly carefree family could, for at least one day, experience what it’s like to be him. Unfortunately, the day Alexander has his wish granted turns out to be the same day as the prom, the school play, his father’s job interview and his mother’s potential promotion.

To detail everything that goes wrong for Alexander’s family on that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day would be to spoil a lot of the fun (even though the TV commercials have already tried their best to do that very thing). While the movie isn’t really a belly-laugh, roll-in-the-aisles type of comedy, it’s got plenty of smile inducing moments, more than enough to keep kids and parents alike happy for the duration of its short running time.

Better yet, the characters are all likable. The movie shockingly portrays a traditional family with a mom and a dad and four (count ’em four) children and guess what? They all love each other and generally get along. Even more astounding is that the parents are actually competent, if you can believe it, and (try not to faint at this one) their children respect them and listen to them. All in all, they’re a pretty decent group whom you wouldn’t mind knowing in real life. Their only glaring fault is that they don’t initially recognize how miserable the 12 year old Alexander is feeling.

At least that’s how it appears to Alexander in the beginning because, you know, he’s 12.

One of the more appreciable elements of the film version of the story is how Alexander slowly grows to regret his wish as he watches his family come together and try to help each other as the day spirals further and further out of control. Given its setup, the film could easily coast along on sadistic gags at the expense of its characters, but veteran director Miguel Arteta and first time screenwriter Rob Lieber don’t appear interested in going that route. Instead, they concentrate on the relentless cheerfulness and camaraderie the family displays each time they take a hit.

By expanding on the role of Alexander’s family, the movie naturally loses the book’s focus on Alexander’s childhood angst, but the new family dynamic is satisfying in its own right. The film never hammers the audience over the head with its underlying message, but it doesn’t shy away from displaying the necessity of family solidarity in the face of hard times. A rather timely message when you stop to think about it.

This approach takes the edge off the material and results in a film that I imagine is bound to garner a lot of negative reviews from older teens and movie critics who would prefer their comedies to be a bit more on the subversive side. But for those looking for a light hearted agenda-free family film like Disney used to make way back when, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is likely to come as a welcome breath of fresh air.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.