What began as an autobiographical lark for a brother and sister scribbling down stories about growing up in a radical family of an unconventional size has turned into the basis for Hollywood’s decades-long obsession with their familial farces. The portrait of charming, controlled chaos within Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s novel “Cheaper by the Dozen” has been adapted for the screen twice before, produced during two drastically different eras. Each version retained the name but featured varying outcomes for the characters, with the 1950s iteration featuring a not-so-plucky ending compared to its more current counterpart in 2003. Yet the resonant themes, centered on an unsinkable family’s resilience during trying times, are what tie them together.
In that same vein comes this modernized spin on the timeless tale for Disney Plus. Director Gail Lerner and co-writers Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry and Kenya Barris (who also produces) retrofit their remake with many of the same elements that made its predecessors salient and satisfying, paying homage to the spirit in which they were created. However, this new adaptation’s noteworthy commentary on poignant, timely issues is often eclipsed by predictability, superficial character development and inconsistent pacing.
Paul (Zach Braff) and Zoey Baker (Gabrielle Union) are raising a full house of dreamers — nine of them, to be exact. Zoey’s kids from a previous marriage, Deja (Journee Brown) and DJ (Andre Robinson), are entertaining their respective athletic and artistic pursuits. Paul’s kids from his prior marriage, Ella (Kylie Rogers), Harley (Caylee Blosenski) and godson-turned-son Haresh (Aryan Simhadri), are planning to be a fashion influencer, punk rock star and entertainment entrepreneur. Meanwhile, these harried marrieds’ four young children — fraternal twins Luna (Mykal-Michelle Harris) and Luca (Leo Abelo Perry) and identical twins Bailey (Christian Cote) and Bronx (Sebastian Cote) — focus on causing generalized mayhem and madness. Since combining their families, the couple has weathered countless storms, from minor financial setbacks to unexpected drop-ins from Paul’s zen-yogi ex-wife Kate (Erika Christensen) and Zoey’s football superstar ex-hubby Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett).
The Bakers’ world turns upside-down when a private equity firm funds Paul’s homegrown business venture: a hot, sweet and savory sauce he concocted while running the family’s all-breakfast restaurant. Once the sauce starts flying off the shelves, Paul convinces his clan to move from their cramped digs in Echo Park to the luxurious comfort of a palatial mansion in Calabasas. With that overnight success comes lots of suburban strife. Not only are Deja and Haresh experiencing problems fitting into their new white-dominated schools, Zoey combats micro-aggressions on the home-front, from both a racist rent-a-cop and pompous, presumptuous neighbor Anne (June Diane Raphael). Still, not until Paul’s pitched a franchise opportunity and his troubled nephew Seth (Luke Prael) comes to live with them does their strong foundation begin to crack.
The filmmakers pluck quite a few story threads from director Shawn Levy’s early-aughts adaptation, including bullying, athletic frustrations, an absentee parent, a forbidden sleepover and a climax involving a runaway child. But what makes this version stand out are the heartrending, heartfelt additions to the narrative and character motivations. They discuss pressing topics like racial profiling, prejudice and white privilege with great craft and care. They also tailor this family’s travails to suit the deft performance skills of leads Braff and Union, who both deliver comical and conscientious work.
That said, this flatly lensed feature still manages to disappoint. There’s a tighter 90-minute film hidden within the padded runtime. It’s glacially paced with more information told to us than shown. Only a small handful of the Baker children are given satisfying arcs while the rest of the brood are there solely for shenanigans’ sake. The end title cards, which provide a glimpse into the characters’ futures, serve as a reminder that Ella, Harley and the pint-sized cast members were dealt short shrift when they could’ve been better incorporated. Sequences like Paul’s playfully contentious dance-off against Dom, Zoey’s cringey interactions with Anne, and the toddlers’ “Fast and Furious”-style gambling circuit might’ve looked good on paper, but they don’t materialize in execution.
Despite some of this movie’s missteps, the heart behind its messages is in the right place. Sentiments dealing with co-parenting after divorce and prioritizing family above monetary success may seem old fashioned on the surface. Yet it goes deeper, exploring and challenging our societal system’s gross inequities and injustices in a thoughtful, meaningful manner. These enlightened and compelling updates never cheapen the legacy of this story. They serve to enliven it.