Cheaper by the Dozen is a story that is technically over 100-years-old. The original novel was written by two members of the Gilbreth family in 1948, but it dealt with their lives as two of 12 children growing up in the first quarter of the 20th century. The book has been adapted into film twice previously, once in 1950 starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, and then again in 2003 with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Now a brand new take is arriving on Disney+, and while the new version isn’t without its charm, and some well needed updates, it tries to do a lot with a lot of characters in a very short amount of time, leaving a messy result.
Directed by Gail Lerner, this version of Cheaper by the Dozen introduces us to the Baker family: Paul Baker (Zach Braff) is a chef who was married to Kate (Erika Christensen) and had two kids, Ella (Kylie Rogers) and Harley (Caylee Blosenski). They then adopt godson Haresh (Aryan Simhadri) when his parents passed away. Meanwhile, Zoe (Gabrielle Union) was married to pro football player Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett) and they had two kids of their own, Deja (Journee Brown) and DJ (Andree Robinson). After both couples get divorced, Paul and Zoe meet, marry each other, and end up having two sets of twins, Luna and Luca (Mykal-Michelle Harris and Leo Abelo Perry) and Bailey and Bronx (Christian and Sebastian Cote). Everybody caught up?
The Baker family runs a restaurant together, and it’s successful, though the large family is barely scraping by. However, when Paul gets a chance to pitch a delicious sauce that he makes to some investors, the family has real money for the first time – allowing them to buy the larger house they desperately need in a neighborhood they could not previously afford.
There's an incredibly diverse cast in Cheaper by the Dozen, though some stars get shortchanged.
Obviously, the cast here is quite extensive, and one of the things this version of Cheaper by the Dozen does right is diversify the cast. We’ve got the younger kids of the two lead characters who are biracial, and multiple ethnicities represented among the older children. It’s made clear in a shot of the couple’s wedding that Braff’s character is Jewish, and daughter Harley is confined to a wheelchair. This family is incredible, and it's wonderful to see. They go through many difficulties, but none of them are internal.
The characters are all solid and Cheaper by the Dozen does its best to give each member of the family, including cousin Seth (Luke Prael), who joins the story midway through, their own arcs. But as one might expect with a cast this large and a runtime significantly shorter than The Batman, that's tough to pull off.
While the racial diversity is welcome and is a part of the story, the other diverse elements are here, but clearly less important. Paul’s Judaism, for example, doesn’t come up beyond one shot in a montage, and Caylee Blosenski’s Harley is one member of the family who simply doesn’t have much impact on the story. It’s brought up at the beginning and end of the story that she’s in a punk band, but we never see the group, and her musical interests don't impact anything but her clothes.
Cheaper by the Dozen includes a lot of interesting ideas without actually being a movie about most of them.
On the one hand, it can be seen as a positive that a disabled character appears in the movie without the disability being the focus of the story, but because the character is largely left out of the key conflicts in the film, it feels like Harley was written this way just for the sake of having a disabled character. She doesn't have a narrative of her own, though it feels like perhaps there may be one on the cutting room floor.
It would not be shocking if there were plots in Cheaper that were cut for time because there is a lot jammed in here as it is. There are so many plots and subplots that Cheaper By the Dozen never seems to be quite sure what it’s about. The movie starts with Zoe’s ex announcing that he is retiring and so will be able to help out more, a decision that Paul, who is uncomfortable with Dom’s wealth, has trouble reconciling. It looks like this will be a battle of the dads story... but then Dom disappears for the middle third of the movie.
Paul then gets his big sauce-based business opportunity, and while some of the family have some reservations about the decision to risk so much (maybe this is what the movie will be about...) the family moves to a new gated community. There, racial tensions with the very white neighbors immediately flare up, leaving the whole business plot alone for a while. It then looks like the racial and class struggles will be what the movie will be about, but it’s really only a subplot that is never really resolved.
Some narrative threads that appear as though they are being abandoned do return later in Cheaper By The Dozen to be satisfied, but most of them are just hand-waved out of existence, meaning that none of the resolutions really feel satisfying. It’s very much the “Disney movie” version of the story.
Cheaper by the Dozen has a little bit for everybody, but maybe not enough as a whole for anybody.
This is not to say that there isn’t value in a lot of what Cheaper by the Dozen gives us. A movie that has kids drag racing on scooters indoors, in a scene clearly designed to appeal to younger viewers, includes some real discussions of race that are incredibly honest. It makes you see what the film could have been if this was what it was about, instead of it simply being a small part in a broad spectrum of plots.
Alternatively, this could have just been a family slapstick comedy, and that could have been ok too. There’s nothing wrong with being something fun and silly for families to watch on Disney+. What we end up with, however, is something that tries to be both, and it ends up failing to succeed at either. There's just a lot going on in Cheaper by the Dozen and its heart is in the right place, but raising a family this big was always going to be messy, and in the end, so is the movie.
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.
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