Most of us are familiar with the 2003 Cheaper By the Dozen starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt as the parents to 12 – count ‘em – 12 kids! The movie features breakout stars like Tom Welling, Hilary Duff and Piper Perabo. You might also be familiar with 1968’s Yours, Mine and Ours starring Lucille Ball, Henry Fonda and Van Johnson. In that film, Frank has 10 children and Helen has 8.
Disney’s Cheaper By the Dozen stays true to a lot of the traits of the former but makes some room for the latter. In the film, we follow Zoey and Paul Baker (Geekiary fave Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff respectively) as they navigate life with their blended and extended families. Zoey has two children from a previous relationship, DJ (Andre Robinson) and Deja (Journee Brown). Paul has three kids, two biological – Ella (Kylie Rogers) and Harley (Caylee Blosenski), and a young boy they adopted after his parents died in a fatal crash, Haresh (Aryan Simhadri). The ‘they’ in question are Paul and his ex-wife Kate (Erika Christensen) with whom Paul still maintains a friendship, or at the very least, Kate has a very comfortable friendship with his couch.
Finally, there are Paul and Zoey’s two sets of twins: Luca and Luna (Leo Abelo Perry and Mikal-Michelle Harris) and Bailey and Bronx (Christian Cote and Sebastian Cote).
The Bakers all live together with their two dogs, Bark Obama and Joe Bite ‘em (gave me a good chuckle!), and Kate comes by (and stays by) often to help with the kids while everyone goes to work. Work is “Bakers Breakfast”, a restaurant run by Paul and Zoey with help from the kids. Add in Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett) as Zoey’s ex-husband and Cousin Seth (Luke Prael), Paul’s wayward nephew, and what you have is an overstuffed house full of chaotic love.
Director Gail Lerner is a long-time collaborator with scriptwriter Kenya Barris. They worked on Black-ish and Mixed-ish and Gail also directed episodes of Grace and Frankie and Happy Endings. Both of the latter are sitcoms that are shot without a laugh track to have more of a resemblance to film. She and Barris speak the same language so the direction is tight despite some tone and thematic issues.
While Cheaper By the Dozen is an intimate and charming family comedy, it’s also a property that can be a bit too unfocused. The script suffers from its own form of ADHD. Paul has invented a sauce that’s hot, sweet, or savory depending on the item you put it on. He finds a way to market the sauce which affords his family the opportunity to live like the other side.
He uproots them from their humble cottage in Echo Park to Calabasas (Kardashian Country as one of the kids calls it). The minute they begin unpacking a security guard informs them of a noise ordinance for the neighborhood. Naturally, he goes straight to Zoey who is the lone Black woman in the neighborhood.
Paul gets an opportunity to franchise his restaurant and while Zoey is hesitant, she supports his dreams. She does, however, begin to struggle to keep up with the kids. Haresh is getting into fights, Deja is missing basketball practice, DJ’s birthday is coming up and he can’t figure out how to talk to girls or relate to his dad and Seth? Well, he’s just being Seth.
What Cheaper By the Dozen does well is give each character their own agency. The twins are known as “the littles” and they are adorably precocious. Luca and Luna are especially sweet and they’re kids without it being overly sappy. While each kid has their ~thing, they have little to no time to really share their experiences. Instead, their storylines are folded into the main few, which are Deja, DJ, Haresh and Seth. While I realize the concept is a family with 12 mouths to feed, they could have seriously dropped about three of the kids and no one would notice.
I will say the addition of Erika Christensen as Kate was an unusual and welcome surprise. Again, she’s given very little to do. She’s not quite comic relief, but what she does with her time is extremely effective. If the word “conscious uncoupling” can be applied to any relationship, it’s Paul and Kate. The two remain friends and co-parents and thankfully it’s only to Zoey’s playful chagrin.
Zoey’s ex is a different story. Dom was a pro basketball player who found success and lost his family in the process. He shows up for his kids, but his ongoing rivalry with Paul threatens to throw a wrench in the family’s stability.
There are also issues with class, race, business and gender issues. The movie is so packed with “issues” that you’d think there wouldn’t be room left for heart. The good news is there is and the heart is plentiful. The not-so-good news is this is sometimes done at the expense of the story.
The addition of Seth is odd. Paul gets a call that his sister is back in rehab and Seth will be coming to live in their already packed house. Lots of strange decisions are made when dealing with a troubled youth and it can’t all be blamed on Paul’s neglect or Zoey’s feelings of being overwhelmed.
Cheaper By the Dozen is ambitious to say the least, and I can easily say that I’m glad for the effort. It does address the different disparities within interracial relationships and takes those to task who try to say that racism is over or not as prevalent anymore. Everyone’s voice is heard and while you may not understand clearly the first time, the movie only gets better with multiple watches. It’s fun to go back and catch the things you might have missed, especially easter eggs from the -Ish series.
Of course, this is a children’s movie and a Disney one at that so everything is sure to get resolved with a pretty little bow on top, right? Well, maybe, but one thing is you’ll be entertained until even after the credits roll.
Disney’s Cheaper By the Dozen will premiere exclusively on Disney+, Friday, March 18th.
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