The 1972 children’s picture book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by author Judith Viorst, does not contain the word “psychopharmacologist.” Nor does it contain the word “penis.” That this film adaptation -- aimed squarely at an older kid/tween audience -- contains both words isn’t a strike against it, just a statement of fact. But do leave the very, very young ones at home with a babysitter and a Blu-ray of Winnie The Pooh. Or maybe with a copy of the original book.

If you’ve read that book, either as a child or as an adult, it probably took you all of five to ten minutes. And that’s why screenwriter Rob Lieber and director Miguel Arteta, responsible for overhauling and re-imagining everything in order to stretch the narrative to a suitable 85-minute length, have taken some liberties.

Unlike 6 year-old Alexander of book fame, movie Alexander (Australian actor Ed Oxenbould) is middle-school age, with troubles those kids will understand. And rather than uncomfortable pajamas and the accidental biting of his own tongue, his “terrible, horrible” involves diminished social status at school (hence, discussions of cooler classmates with ADHD and personal psychopharmacologists). There’s also a bit of pre-sexual anxiety over a girl (Sidney Fullmer) who may be out of his league, and a pair of harried, working parents (Steve Carrell and Jennifer Garner, whose motherly insistence on repeating the word “penis” to the embarrassment of everyone is one of the funnier moments in the film). But it’s Alexander’s two older siblings (Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey), whose popularity and accomplishments threaten to make everyone forget Alexander’s upcoming birthday, that cue the 16 Candles parallels.

What transpires next is a weird mix of mild supernatural revenge, Disney corporate synergy, wacky mishaps that could use a shot of Red Bull, and some unintentional class-based moralizing that implies fixing a child’s bad day is easy if you can afford to buy him off.

After wishing on a cupcake that his family could experience the misery Alexander’s been going through, disasters befall each and every member, from prom mishaps to school play fiascos to auto accidents. They’re amusing sequences of mayhem, but their momentum never builds. As though reassuring a nervous person that everything’s going to be all right, the action slows to a gentle roll every chance it gets, giving the film more than enough opportunities to catch its breath. And any adult who's ever pushed a playground merry-go-round with kids on it will know that "Slower! Slower!" is not what they yell while you're doing it.

Weirder still is the script’s insistence on referencing other Disney products, from a subplot about Peter Pan that includes the song “You Can Fly,” to a mention of Wreck-It Ralph, to a disastrous set piece involving Dick Van Dyke that cannot wait to remind you that you probably didn’t see Saving Mr. Banks. Once is a nod, twice is arm-twisting, but three times begins to feel like desperation.

The happy ending is coming, of course, but its sweetness and goofiness -- families are good; families as bulldozing teams of mass destruction are funny and, therefore, better -- gives way to a celebration of consumption that, perhaps unintentionally, puts working class parents on notice. Maybe, like the book it's based on, it can be used as a teachable moment, instructing children on the difference between reality and Hollywood fantasy. So parents, practice this sentence now for future use: "No, you can't have live kangaroos at your birthday party." Maybe your kid will forgive you for it when they grow up and have their own psychopharmacologist.


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