By the Dozen Cheap premieres Friday, March 18 on Disney+.
Disney’s latest revival of Cheaper by the Dozen — a soft franchise featuring two previous films (and a sequel) based on a semi-autobiographical book set in the ’40s — features a large, hectic family and the madcap chaos that comes with raising and… Managing such a connected is a busy brood. Starring Zach Braff and Gabrielle Union, this latest incarnation of the Bakers’ overcrowded homestead is a light-hearted mix of biting humor and scruffy magic tricks.
This new Cheaper by the Dozen plays like a series of chapters strung together. This structure of breakout bits and mini-bows helps balance out the large ensemble, though there are still a handful of baker’s kids who don’t quite make the cut in the spotlight. A daughter, Caylee Blossenski’s Harley, gets an intriguing intro, but nothing comes of it. Ah great. Sounds like real family, right? Some children are overly outshone. Still, the film’s pacing, skipping through these minor entanglements while also delving into the larger story of the entire family’s move to a gated community in Calabasas (the 2003 Steve Martin film also involved a large move), helps around all to sweeten episodic feeling.
Cheaper by the Dozen also makes a few changes to the family formula for the better, depicting not only an interracial marriage and children, but also a blended family (some children biologically belong to Braff’s Paul and some belong to the Zoe union). Throw in Paul’s nephew, who ends up needing a stable(r) home, and you have a much more understandable source of chaos than just “this woman gave birth to 12 children for some reason.” In fact, for what it’s worth, this story hits you with a much more sensible one nine children Scenario in which Paul, Zoe and cousin Seth (Luke Prael) make up the rest of the “dozen”. The clutter and madness still abound, but the design feels well updated and more organic.
There’s also a goofy assortment of odd edges in this new Billiger resurrection, like Paul’s ex-wife, played by Erika Christensen, who’s kind of a fuzzy extra family member (making it a real Baker’s Dozen?) or the fact that Paul’s skyrocketing career involves a food sauce that can alter the flavor (giving a slight “Flubber Science” vibe). Zoe’s ex also plays a big part in the story, as an NFL star (Timon Kyle Durrett) who pushes all of Paul’s unsafe buttons. There are enough unique angles here to add some extra energy to this overcrowded clan, but the downside is the mix of smart and dumb.
Sometimes Cheaper by the Dozen is wise in humor and sentiment and at others it plays like goofy, sloppy slapstick. Obviously this is a kids/family movie; There is no shame in this game. It’s meant to entertain young minds, so part of it has to include ‘dad is a jerk’ and ‘huge messes have no consequences’ moments. It’s designed to play fast and loose with real life, but the tone change that comes with it is too distracting at times. Braff certainly has good comedy skills, so he can handle the misguided dance-off or the impromptu costume change, but it’s still a bit boring to watch a character make stupid decisions for 90% of a story.
It’s worth noting, however, that Cheaper by the Dozen doesn’t portray a multiracial, mixed-race family without also addressing the imbalance between Paul’s privilege and the experiences of bigotry Zoe goes through. In fact, Paul’s lack of perspective is invoked a few times, and the film even questions his ability to raise black children with the understanding it deserves. Love may not be enough to keep some family dynamics afloat if Paul cannot acknowledge certain differences in experience. It’s an unexpectedly sharp and welcome observation for family courts. But there’s no real fix for this because the story as a whole still relies on quick sitcom-style fixes.
Braff and Union are in fine form as parental units, play well, provide an affectionate and believable foundation, and give us two characters you buy as the willing architects of this madhouse. However, you have to decide what is perhaps the most unbelievable thing about all of this. The size of the family, the unspoken amount of money involved in the purchase full villa in Calabasas (that is not the movie for people with financial angst) or the way Paul goes from enlightened to upright clown in the blink of an eye. The teen/kid actors are well suited – particularly Journee Brown’s Deja, Andre Robinson’s DJ and Aryan Simhadri’s Haresh – as Cheaper by the Dozen stumbles and surprises in almost equal measure.
Disney+ Spotlight: March 2022