Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life Review

middle-schoolIt might surprise you to hear it but I think the pre-teen demographic is one of the  most underserved at the movies, especially with live action films.  There are lots of films made for younger and lots made for older but rarely is something really made with them in mind. The last good film for that demographic was Disney’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day.While today’s film, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, isn’t as good, it has entertaining elements for its target demographic including humor, heart and fun animated sequences.

Based on the novel by James Patterson, Middle School focuses on a kid named Rafe (Griffin Gluck) who is starting at a new school under rule of Principal Dwight (Andy Daly). Rafe has lost a loved one in his life and is grieving, which has caused him to move around from school to school. Principal Dwight makes it clear to Rafe on the first day of class that he is living under a new regime with a strict rulebook. Rafe is a creative kid and finds these rules frustrating and unfair. Principal Dwight is also focused more on standardized testing than on actual learning.middle-school3When Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s artbook filled with sketches Rafe and a friend seek revenge through a series of pranks that go from silly (dying the principal’s hair brought me back to Home Alone) to creative (a post-it note display is completely impossible for him to do in one night but very pretty). I think kids will get a big kick out of these kind of pranks and the actors pull off the physical comedy well.

middle-school2There was a surprising amount of heart in Middle School particularly with the family grieving over the loss of their loved one. I admit I teared up in a few moments. Lauren Graham is wonderful as usual as Rafe’s mother. I think kids will really be able to relate to what the family is going through which to me make it better than a pure slapstick film.

middle-school6The animation segments are also really cool. I wish there were even a few more of them but they pop off the screen and feel like a doodle come to life. It was a creative touch I didn’t expect from this kind of movie. It kind of reminded me of the claymation in Better Off Dead.

middle-school5Where the movie falters is in a plotline with Rob Riggle- a comedian I have never liked. He plays Rafe’s Mom’s fiance and is named ‘The Bear’ and is animated as an obese bear in several segments. He is right out of any ‘I’m sending these brats to boarding school” (literally) that we’ve seen in a million other movies. There is absolutely no reason to believe Mom and Bear would be together or that she would put up with him and it really dragged the movie down.

The thing is we don’t need another villain at home. Principal Dwight is more than enough to keep things going. If you think about Ferris Beuller’s Day Off his parents are kind of a non-entity and it is better that way. Edward Rooney is more than enough of an antagonist for the film to work. Andy Daly also has enough charm as Principal Dwight that he can stand on his own.

Middle School_CBSFilms_FrankMasi_2015_17411.RAFI also wish it was just a little bit funnier.  There was nothing that made me laugh as hard as the DMV scene in Alexander and the Terrible Day. As it is it feels like the humor you get in a Disney Channel TV show, which isn’t bad just not hilarious.

middle-school7I have a feeling critics will focus too much on the flaws of this film, so it may have a low RT score. Trust me. If you have a child in the target demographic, don’t pay attention to that.  Take them. I really think they will like it. If you don’t than it is probably a pass and maybe catch it on cable or streaming later on.

It could be better but it still was a decent example of this type of formula film. Plus, the heart and creative touches made it an engaging watch.

Overall Grade- B-  (If any of you see it, let me know what you think)

Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day Review

alexanderWhen I saw the trailer to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day I was very annoyed.  The reason is I love the book by Judith Viorst it is based on so much.

ALEXANDER_TERRIBLE_HORRIBLEWhat’s special about the book is it validates a child’s feelings.  That Alexander can have a bad day full of negative emotions and that’s ok. I feel like too often we silence children and want them to stop pouting or crying instead of listening to their concerns and feelings.  It’s the same reason I love Charlie Brown because Shultz allowed his child character to be down and depressed on occasion.

The book Alexander ends saying “Today has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  My Mom says some days are like that…even in Australia”

What a perfect and lovely message for kids.

The trailer for the movie version of Alex seemed to forget the message by promising silly slapstick and a family having a ‘cursed’ day instead of an ordinary child having an ordinary bad day.

Now I have seen the movie and I have to give it some props.  It is not as bad as I thought it would be.  (If you’ve been reading the blog it is a total Shoney’s moment).  In fact, I can even admit it is a decent live action family comedy- something not made all that often any more.

Alexander has his terrible day where everything is going wrong- nobody is going to come to his birthday because a cool kid is throwing a party, he gets gum in his hair, doesn’t get to work on Australia for the big report and more.

alexander4Alexander is played by the likable child actor Ed Oxenbould.  The whole cast is very likable including Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner as Alexander’s parents.  It feels like a real family and they have a lovely chemistry together.

While Alexander’s day is rotten and nobody seems to understand him (that did call back to the book), everything is going great for the rest of the family.  Frustrated Alexander wishes on a candle that his family would know what it feels like to have a terrible day.

Then the next day comes and it is a horrible day for the family and of course everything seems to be happening on that day including a book unveiling  involving Dick Van Dyke that goes wrong, a job  interview for Carrel, prom for the oldest boy, a play for the girl and Alexander’s birthday.  That’s a lot for one day but you go with it.

I guess what makes all of hijinks on day 2 palatable is they do feel semi-realistic-  Carell can’t find a sitter, baby eats a marker, girl gets sick, boy fails driving test ect. And like I said there is a chemistry and love between the cast which forgives a lot of silly slapstick.

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The funniest scene is by far Jennifer Coolidge as a driver inspector who gives Alexander’s brother Anthony his driving test. It reminded me of the scene in Clueless when Dion goes on the freeway for the first time.

The movie ends with a sincere and sweet moment for the family which feels earned and not as sentimental as you might think.

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I wish they had been bolder like  Where the Wild Things Are and really told the darker tale hidden in the book.  It would have been so refreshing and exciting but as a pleasant family comedy it’s not half bad.

They are smart to not have a villain which would have dragged the whole thing down. (I was worried Garner’s boss played by Megan Mullally was going to be the villain but she’s just part of the overall bad day).  The bad day is the villain with perhaps a bratty high school prom girl thrown in for laughs.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayIf you are wondering the humor is kind of juvenile but aside from a kangaroo scene it is all grounded in reality and not painful to watch like a Home Alone  movie.  I chuckled on a number of occasions and I think kids will really find it funny.  There aren’t that many comedies outside of animation you can go to as a family and Alexander is such a film.

There is some cartoon style violence but not much and some vomit and other gross scenes.  The Thunder from Down Under dancers appear as a joke but do not strip which is a little strange for a Disney film.  The word penis is also used 4 times in a scene but aside from that it is a pretty tame PG.

So, I have to give them some credit.  A movie I was sure I would hate I enjoyed.  It’s not as funny or as clever as Spongebob or Penguins but it’s still entertaining and worth a rental. I’m not trying to oversell it but it was just better than I expected it to be.

I’d say give it a shot especially if you are having one of those days…

And remember “some days are just like that. Even in Australia”

That said the book is better. I recommend all parents have it and read it regularly to their kids.

Overall Grade- B  The book gets an A+