When it comes to making movies for families, studios tend to make two different types of films. One is designed primarily for kids that offers nothing for the parents who brought them to the theater. The other type of film is more like classic Disney animation that is well thought out and offers a story that everyone can enjoy. In the case of The War with Grandpa, it sort of fits somewhere in the middle. In fact, given the casting, this just might be best suited for grandkids and their grandparents and leave mom and pop at home.
Based on a novel by Robert Kimmel Smith, The War with Grandpa is a story between two stubborn men. One who is older and knows better and one who can’t even shave yet and doesn’t. The latter is Peter (Oakes Fegley) who is already dreading this next year. For one, he is a sixth grader and an easy target for the school bullies and the other is because he had to give up his bedroom because he grandpa has moved in with his family.
Peter wants to know why Grandpa has take over his room and his mother Sally (Uma Thurman) and father Arthur (Rob Riggle) explain that his cool teenager Mia (Laura Marano) and younger Christmas-loving sister Jennifer (Poppy Gagnon) already share a room. The basement won’t work for Grandpa. It’s gross. Nor will the attic as it doesn’t have a bathroom nearby and it wouldn’t be safe for Grandpa to have to climb all of those stairs every day. But the attic does make a suitable replacement for Peter even if it does contain bats.
Peter tells his friends that his grandpa moved in right after he got arrested for robbing a local grocery store. This isn’t entirely correct. Ed (Robert De Niro) did get in a scuffle, but the “robbery” was just a mixup he had with an argument he had with the self-checkout machine and battle that ensued afterward with the store’s security. Apparently, this is just another event in a long string of similar events which cause Ed’s daughter, Sally, to propose that he move in with her family.
Ed isn’t any happier taking over Peter’s room than Peter is losing it. Ed has been living in the same house – the house that he built himself as a contractor before his retirement – many years earlier. Both of these guys feel that they were the kings of their castles before they were taken away from them.
At school, Peter’s friends convince him that he needs to threaten war with his grandfather to get his room back. Ed tries to reason with the boy explaining how he has been in a real war where nobody really wins, but Peter isn’t backing down and so they go to war. In private. This is just between the two of them – no need to get the family involved. And that is where the pranks come in each one outdoing the other.
It’s not all bad though. Ed gets to be re-acquainted with his old buddy Jerry (Christopher Walken) is just a big kid and Jerry’s friend, Danny (Cheech Marin) who thinks he has a way with the ladies, but clearly does not. Together, they help give Ed ideas on how to prank Peter. And during another trip to a different grocery store, Ed meets Diane (Jane Seymour) who explains how her grandkids can get under her skin as well.
Back on the warfield, the pranks get bigger and better often with Sally inadvertently getting stuck in the middle. The pranks get bigger and better until everything comes crashing down at Jennifer’s Christmas-themed birthday party in September.
Overall, kids are going to love and relate to this story and the great casting makes it the film (mostly) enjoyable for the adults. If you’re going to hang around some old guys for an hour and a half, it might as well be with De Niro, Walken and Marin. The highlights for the adults is when De Niro and friends make a stop at Peter’s school to teach a bully a lesson ala goodfellas and the kids vs. adults game of dodgeball on trampolines. There is almost zero swearing and the bathroom humor is kept at a minimum as well.
On the downside, the movie feels weirdly overlong and yet unfinished by the time it ends. There are too many characters in the story (all of Peter’s friends at school have their own qwirks but they don’t really add much) and a few of the side stories don’t go anywhere. One side story deals with Arthur’s work where he plans new store layouts for WalMart. He knows that he has more talent than that, but he is also aware that needs to keep putting food on the table as well. Unfortunately, this situation never really gets resolved.
I have to wonder why this story was needed in movie in the first place. For that matter, you have to wonder why Riggle is even in the movie. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy. He doesn’t have much to do except to look like a doofus, and I am not a fan of movies that insist on making the dad appear as a loser. Arthur isn’t much of a “sports guy” and doesn’t relate well to Ed. I was hoping to see some kind of redemption for his character, but the movie doesn’t really give one. At least he didn’t have to change his personality.
Another side story involves Sally’s dislike for Mia’s boyfriend. By the end of the movie everything is peachy keen, but it feels as if we were never let in on what happened to improve their relationship. You have to wonder what else can be found on the cutting room floor.
While I can’t say that The War with Grandpa deserves an “A,” I can say that it does make for a good, solid “B” and a good enough excuse to get out of the house to see it – providing you can find a theater that is open.
Main Image: Ed (Robert De Niro) and Peter (Oakes Fegley) (101 Studios)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.