Few subgenres manifest film critics with painstaking dread like slapstick family films. Whether they’re led by a high-profile star (John Cena’s Playing with Fire) or haphazardly following-up a so-so predecessor (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul), these formulaic offerings often reek of cash-grab studio mandates. The latest entry in the much-maligned subgenre The War with Grandpa boasts an awards-caliber cast. However, this eclectic mix of talent spends most of their time mugging at cameras in another trite misfire.
Based on Robert Kimmel Smith’s children’s book, The War with Grandpa follows Ed (Robert DeNiro), a retired widow who is forced to move in with his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) and her lively family. When Sally’s son Peter (Oakes Fegley) loses his room in the move, he rages an all-out war to get his turf back.
Films of this ilk have an easy target on their back, lacking the innovation or complexity to accomplish anything of note. That being said, I can’t say War with Grandpa is entirely terrible. Director Tim Hill crafts his film in the image of boisterous Saturday morning cartoons, pushing a relentlessly zany comedic energy with his gag-a-minute approach. There’s a shameless appeal to some of the hard-hitting pratfalls, especially when seeing Oscar nominees like Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, and Uma Thurman go through the wringer. Even when he’s operating on auto-pilot, DeNiro still has a magnetic presence on screen, while Walken continues to draw laughs from his eccentric persona (Rob Riggle also has a blast as Sally’s straight-laced husband).
While not entirely dreadful, there’s very little War with Grandpa thrives at. Hill’s admirable attempts to create an unhinged kineticism lack visual flair, relying upon over-saturated lighting and flat camera work that only permeates a cheap veneer (I knew I was in trouble once the blue clip art appeared in the opening credits). There are only so many times you can witness someone getting hit in the groin before it becomes tiresome, with Hill’s busyness eventually numbing his audience to the point of apathy.
War with Grandpa also boasts many of the subgenre’s tired cliches. Characters fighting over something that could be solved with a simple conversation? Check. Empty side characters that stand as mere vessels to the lead characters? Check. A forced sense of sentimentality that lacks any humanity or reliability? You guessed it! It’s a film that achieves the bare minimum while solely playing to the interest of its young audience.
Tolerable, yet rarely compelling, The War with Grandpa will likely serve as a forgettable bargain bin staple in the years to come.