Someone genuinely trusts director Tim Hill with family-friendly entertainment. Not only is he also the director behind the COVID-delayed The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (based on the TV series he helped create), but he’s also helmed such works as Muppets from Space, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Hop. His latest, The War with Grandpa, is actually one of his only films with a 100 percent human cast, and it somehow manages to take the wildly popular 1984 book by Robert Kimmel Smith and make it both broadly comical and painfully cringe-worthy as it delivers an antiwar message in the movie’s final moments. I’m not knocking the sentiment, but the way the filmmaker wedges some fairly heavy ideas into this movie whose greatest act of aggression—a dodgeball game on a field of trampolines—seems like overkill.
The premise of the film involves average sixth-grader Peter (Oakes Fegley, the talented human lead in Pete’s Dragon), and how his life changes when his recently widowed grandfather Ed (Robert De Niro) moves in with Pete’s family after a series of unfortunate incidents involving Ed not being able to go about his day-to-day routines without a little help. His daughter Sally (Uma Thurman, who played De Niro’s love interest in Mad Dog and Glory, so…ew) and son-in-law Arthur (Rob Riggle) are more than accommodating, so much so that they give Ed Pete’s easily accessible room and put Pete in the attic with the mice and other assorted creepies.
What I had always heard from people I know who read the source novel back in the day is that the book version of Peter is a true asshole, seeing his loving grandfather as an intruder rather than a welcome guest who genuinely cares for him and his two sisters. So rather than make the sacrifice, Peter decides to declare war on his grandfather for the rights to his old room. Basically what follows is a prank war rather than anything substantial, but it still all seems foolish and a waste of time, even though the two seem to remain relatively friendly combatants.
The only moderately enjoyable part of The War with Grandpa is Ed’s older friends, who eventually get drafted into the battle, as do a few of Peter’s school pals. Among those in Ed’s crew are Cheech Marin, a new friend (and potential love interest) played by Jane Seymour, and the biggest shocker of them all, Christopher Walken’s Jerry. It’s so clear that Walken just walked on set and said to the director “I’m just going to do me; don’t bother trying to direct,” and thankfully Hill didn’t resist because the scenes between Walken and De Niro are great. If you don’t immediately start thinking of how bad things got the last time these two appeared on screen together in The Deer Hunter, the heavy-handed antiwar messages that pop up in this movie won’t be nearly as hilarious.
I suppose we’re meant to take some solace in the fact that Peter and Ed are able to take timeouts to confer about the status of the battle, but those moments really just underscore how thoughtless Peter has become. His grandfather literally has nowhere else in the house to comfortably stay, and while elaborate set pieces like the aforementioned trampoline dodgeball game are moderately enjoyable, they certainly don’t warrant the borderline cruelty that Peter displays—and no, it doesn’t matter if Ed sees it that way or not.
Things go off the rails at a Christmas-themed birthday party for Peter’s younger sister, which is meant to be a temporary peace between the warring parties. Tthe upshot of the cataclysmic event is that Peter learns a hard lesson about the true nature and casualties of war. There are brief mentions of real war throughout the movie—Ed is an actual veteran, so he’s seen a few things—but nothing quite braced me for the impact of Peter’s final thoughts on the futility of a large-scale war like the one in which these two have engaged. It can’t be overstated how sloppy and awful this moment is, and it made me long for the more subtle notes of The Deer Hunter.
Admittedly, there are worse messages you could teach children, I suppose. But The War with Grandpa seems so eager for us to enjoy the battles between the age groups that to hit us upside the head with such a concluding moral seems not only misguided but disingenuous. And while De Niro and Walken seem to be having a grand old time together, Thurman looks like she’s being held prisoner. By selecting a book with such a potentially unlikable child protagonist, the filmmakers may have assigned themselves an impossible task, and while there have certainly been worse family-friendly films made in recent years, none of them are the biggest movie coming out this week, in theaters no less.
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