Uma Thurman, Robert de Niro, Christopher Walken. All Oscar-winning or nominated actors. So what are these people all doing in the same family film? That's the conundrum that lured me in to 'The War with Grandpa'; if you've seen the advertising material for the film, you'll be equally puzzled. But put those concerns aside - while far from perfect, this is a step up from the drab straight-to-download releases we've endured this year.
Peter (Oakes Fegley, 'Pete's Dragon', 'Wonderstruck', 'This is Where I Leave You') gets booted out of his room when his ageing grandpa Ed (Robert de Niro, 'The Irishman', 'Taxi Driver') comes to stay with his family. Peter declares war on his grandpa in an attempt to force him to forfeit the room, and it's not long until their pranks and practical jokes escalate into all-out warfare. As the two battle it out, can they keep the rest of the family out of the line of fire?
This film is loosely based on a book of the same title by Robert Kimmel Smith - and I say loosely for two reasons. Firstly, the children's book sees Peter and grandpa sharing the same room. In the adaptation, Peter gets to move into the attic while his two sisters are forced to share a room; isn't having the attic to yourself every kid's dream? Secondly, the on-screen warfare is very different to the book - partially due to the fact that it was released in 1984. The skirmish here involves a fair share of high-tech attacks, including Ed somehow hacking into his grandson's video game despite being unable to operate an iPad. Most of the pranks are fairly low-key - that is, until the offensive escalates at a birthday party, offering a pretty spectacular end to the film's second act.
De Niro has a very PG-rated 'Meet the Parents' vibe throughout this film, and genuinely seems to be enjoying himself. This mightn't be the most creative or challenging project, but he doesn't seem to be acknowledging of the fact; the sign of a truly great actor is an unwillingness to compromise on quality regardless of the material. Although in a much smaller role, Uma Thurman ('Kill Bill', 'Pulp Fiction') as Peter's mum - and Ed's daughter - has a few scene-stealing moments, Although it may seem like an odd choice of role for Thurman given her limited cinematic appearances of late, she pulls off the slightly crazy, overprotective mum role with gusto. While Fegley has a charm that works for Peter, there are scenes that rest on his shoulders which certainly highlight his inexperience.
It's a reasonably unique setup, which is what makes the film as watchable as it is, and ensures the story never becomes too predictable. Still, it's not laugh-out-loud funny or witty or even particularly cleverly written; a little refining of the script really could have taken the final product from something good to something great. The script clearly lacks a main character - despite being titled 'The War with Grandpa', we follow family members from different generations on their daily journeys, all with somewhat different tones applied to their stories. Ironically, the weakest part of the film is when we're tracking Peter and his friends, when the writing is the weakest and all too frequently childish. Perhaps a more honed perspective would have tightened the story's focus.
This mightn't be the most creative or challenging project, but de Niro doesn't seem to be acknowledging of the fact; the sign of a truly great actor is an unwillingness to compromise on quality regardless of the material.
But you know what? Forget about all of that. Sit down, let the screen light up and enjoy the distraction. This is an amazing collection of actors having a bit of fun with a script that's something a little different. In a year where we have had some serious stinkers, you could do considerably worse than 'The War with Grandpa'. This is definitely the kind of film you'll watch once with the family, then forget it ever existed. Still, it's not a bad way to spend 94 minutes forgetting about what's going on outside the cinema doors.