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“Cheaper by the Dozen” Has a Good Message, But a Flawed Execution (Review)

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

It’s particularly surreal to see a film like Cheaper by the Dozen come to Disney+ in the wake of the recent Bob Chapek/Don’t Say Gay controversy. Florida has passed a law essentially prohibiting the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity with students in schools in the third grade or below. In the wake of this hate-fueled legislation and pressure from Disney employees to show support for the LGBT+ community (where Disney is the single largest private sector employee), CEO Bob Chapek responded with a milquetoast “both sides” statement. It was a disgraceful moment for a company that had appeared so dedicated to progress under former CEO Bob Iger.

Cheaper by the Dozen is a film that – to its credit – is passionately concerned about social injustices. I’m not sure I’ve seen a family focused film that has so directly depicted the sort of microaggressions black women and mixed race couples undergo so regularly. The film’s bullies – like real life ones – are more than willing to make racially motivated comments. It is a film where the greatest moment of interpersonal tension is defused by a candid discussion between a white man and black man about how different the experience is for a black boy to become an adult than a white one.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

It’s important for children to see and internalize these lessons earlier to make progress towards long term change. Leads Zach Braff (Scrubs) and Gabrielle Union (Bad Boys 2) are clearly very committed to using the apparatus of a Disney kids movie to try to start educating kids to be better. There are moments that can feel a bit like a checklist of disadvantaged groups: one kid is in a wheelchair, another is an adopted godchild because of deceased parents, and another still is the child of a sister who heads to inpatient rehab. And yet there’s real value in representation. It’s a silly movie about a family with ten kids – it’s ok to let kids from different backgrounds see themselves in some way in this movie.

Do I think Cheaper by the Dozen is a good movie? Not particularly. It’s broad and rather dopey. A masterwork of visual composition it is not. Braff and Union have a cozy friend chemistry, but no particular spark or comedic rapport. Still, the kids are reasonably charming and there are enough jokes aimed at adults, including a funny gag about flavors of Cîroc, that I ended up perfectly gruntled for most of the film’s run time.

Candidly, this is a hard movie to review. I appreciate the film’s message. I think it’s a really good thing that kids will be exposed to this sort of storytelling early in life. Movies matter – they are the great empathy machines. This film is an example of the incremental acceptance and progress that can help to shift what our baseline expectations are for one another. I just wish the actually film here were a good deal better…

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Cheaper by the Dozen will be released tomorrow on Disney+.