How does one take a 32-page children’s book and turn it into a feature-length film? If you’re Disney, you take the basic premise—the Alexander of the title has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day—and extend it to each member of his family.

That means Mom, Dad and Alexander’s three siblings all have bad days, too. And they have backstories, though the backstories are as scant as an 82-minute feature will allow. You also relegate Alexander, incongruously, to the background. And why not? When Steve Carell is dad, do you need the kids?

Those who remember Judith Viorst’s story will see lots of its elements on screen—Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair; he’s stuck on a lower spot on the friend totem pole; he loves Australia—but they’ll also be surprised at just how long 82 minutes can feel. The good news is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has some solid (and benign) laughs. The bad news is it’s a mishmash of half-baked ideas and story threads that are begun and then dropped entirely or wrapped up neatly in the last five minutes so everything can end happily and the kiddies don’t get bored.

As far as family movies go, you could do much, much worse than Alexander. (Anyone remember the horrible How the Grinch Stole Christmas or the wretched Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat? No? Didn’t think so.) The story isn’t much of a stretch from its paper-thin material—and that’s not a knock on Viorst’s book—either.

Australia-loving Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, eh) is having a birthday party but über-popular Philip Parker (Lincoln Melcher) decides to have his on the same night (and sends his invitation out the day before in a clear dick move).

Alexander’s day just gets worse—Philip gets to do a report on Australia while Alexander is stuck with not-Australia)—and then Alexander burns down the science lab while making goo-goo eyes at Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer).

Because Dad (Carell) is Mr. Positive, despite being unemployed for seven months, and Mom (Jennifer Garner) is killing it at work (despite never really being there), Alexander wishes they could have a day as rotten as one of his. And—guess what!—they do.

Dad has a weird job interview with some hipster video game designers (it feels like screenwriter Rob Lieber doesn’t know what hipsters are actually like), Mom lets a children’s book go to the printer with a PG-rated typo (not even an unbilled Dick Van Dyke can make the gag work), and siblings Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and Emily (Kerris Dorsey) have problems, too. He’s trying to pass his driving test and she’s combating a cold while trying to play the lead in Peter Pan. (Note to Lieber: You don’t get a cold overnight.)

Plus, there’s a weird moment when Dad gets angry and knocks over a bunch of trash cans behind a restaurant and encourages the kids to do it. (Great message! Destroy someone else’s property for therapeutic reasons!)

But you know what? There are some solid laughs, a dearth of fart jokes, and Carell and Garner have enough energy to make everything passable, if not great. Again, Alexander could be better, but it could also be a hell of a lot worse. And try not to think about director Miguel Arteta’s past movies, which include Chuck & Buck and Star Maps. That’s just depressing.

 

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

Directed by Miguel Arteta

With Carell, Garner and Oxenbould

Regal Stadium 14

PG

82 min.