It feels very Disney+ to have Cheaper by the Dozen premiering on the company’s streaming service, Disney+, in 2022. The family film is the remake of a remake – the 2022 version puts a new spin on the 2003 movie of the same name, which updated the 1950 movie based on the the semi-autobiographical novel by siblings Frank Butler Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. It’s also potent nostalgia bait for young millennial parents; the 2003 version, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt as the parents of 12 rowdy children, was a reliable (if tepidly reviewed) family-friendly staple of the 2000s whose brood contained a bevy of millennial-beloved stars – Hilary Duff, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling, Alyson Stoner.
The 2022 version, directed by the Black-ish producer Gail Lerner from a script by the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, and writer/producer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk, makes several welcome updates to the formula of large family hijinks, but shares the 2003 film’s flat humor. There are too many moving parts to find a consistent groove; its tone wavers even more haphazardly from kids flick to marriage portrait to slapstick comedy to stark commentary on race, without nailing any particularly well and despite endearing commitment from its performers.
The Disney+ version necessarily modernizes what had always been a uniformly white family at the center into a mixed group. In a cheesy but effectively succinct opening montage, Paul (Zach Braff) and Zoey Baker (Gabrielle Union), the interracial married co-runners of an all-day breakfast joint in Los Angeles, explain how their blended family came to be. Paul was married to the spacey, LA yoga girl Kate (Erika Christensen), with whom he had three kids (one, a child of South Asian descent named Haresh, played by Aryan Simhadri, was adopted as a baby). Zoey was married to NFL pro-bowler Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett), with whom she had two kids. Both marriages ended cheerily – “we agreed to close that chapter of our lives,” said twice – and Zoey and Paul fall in love at his diner. Two sets of twins later, the Bakers are up to nine kids. A foster situation – Paul’s sister, it’s mentioned with careful yet breezy sensitivity, goes to rehab, so the Bakers take in her (very lightly) troubled teenage son Seth (Luke Prael) – makes a full dozen.
As with the 2003 film, the gist of Disney Plus’s remake is cheerful domestic chaos molded into light didacticism: the importance of the nuclear family (albeit a blended one, in this update) with reminders to not get blinded by financial success or the lure of growth. Paul decides to market his special sauce, and possibly franchise the restaurant, in order to help pay for a bigger home. The Bakers move from Echo Park, a middle-class neighborhood in LA proper, to Calabasas – “Kardashian country”, as one Instagram-savvy child puts it. The new mansion, bougie neighborhood and private school puts a strain on the family in obvious, predictable ways: eldest daughter Deja (Journee Brown, a standout among the ensemble), a basketball star, gets benched in favor of the teammate whose surname is on the gymnasium. The white country club parents do not take to Zoey, mistaking her as the nanny.
The latter is one of several moments where the film seems unsure how it wants to handle the elephant in the room of racism. As a joke? (Zoey schooling a haughty, racist country club mom.) As a subtle condition to be addressed obliquely? (Paul telling Zoey, who feels out of place in Calabasas, that there are some places he doesn’t fit in, such as when she took him to a barber’s shop in Inglewood). As a teachable moment? (Dom, a black man skeptical of Paul, launches into a speech about how Paul will never be able to understand how it feels to be profiled by police, let alone prepare his black children for it.)
All of the intentions are capital-G Good, all the politics and views firmly progressive, in a Disney sense, while being palatable. There is a utility for this, especially for young viewers, but the moralizing feels more like a brand straining to be correct rather than a family figuring things out.
Still, some of the sillier material that’s painfully awkward for an adult viewer – Paul and Dom’s dance battle during Deja’s basketball game, Paul copping what he thinks is hip to impress younger potential investors – will probably play well for children, who enjoy TikTok dances and adults making fools of themselves. Braff and Union have passable chemistry, but Union’s charisma and confidence is magnetic in any context including this one. It’s all breezy – there are no bad actors or malicious intent (other than that one Calabasas woman), so the drama is light and the messes are quickly cleaned up.
From an adult perspective, it seems unlikely that 2022’s Cheaper by the Dozen will engender the same loyalty as its predecessor, but who knows? Maybe in 2042, Gen Alpha parents will feel seen by Disney’s newest iteration of the Bakers.