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Robert De Niro is, without question, one of the greatest actors that the motion picture industry has ever seen. He has the filmography and the shelf full of awards to prove that. And yet, despite the numerous credits to the man’s career over decades, he’s been largely typecast, at least by the audience. We expect to see him in serious dramas, and so when he shows up in a movie like Tim Hill's The War with Grandpa, it all feels very strange. Still, we've seen De Niro do great comedy before, so The War with Grandpa doesn't necessarily need to feel like a great actor going through the motions in a movie that's beneath him. I mean, it is exactly that; it just didn't need to be.
The War with Grandpa falls squarely into “kid’s movie” territory, which is to say that nearly everything about the plot and the tone of the story is squarely focused on a younger audience. While there was a clear attempt to make this more of a “family movie” by including a cast that older viewers will appreciate beyond just Robert De Niro, and including some jokes that kids won't necessarily get, that part of the story doesn’t work as well, leaving The War with Grandpa as a film not dissimilar to the central conflict of the movie itself. It’s not entirely lacking in value, but it’s ultimately pointless.
Ed (Robert De Niro) is retired and living alone following the death of his wife. While he’s getting by, his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) doesn’t want her dad living so far away, and so she convinces him to move in with her family. This also means that son Peter (Oakes Fegley) will need to give up his bedroom and move into the attic. Not liking the new status quo, Peter declares war on grandpa, and while grandpa initially tries to ignore the issue, he ultimately realizes Peter will not be dissuaded, and so enters into a conflict of escalating pranks with the boy in what seems to be an attempt to teach him a lesson that utterly fails to connect.
The War With Grandpa has its moments, but they’re few and far between.
When I say this is a “kid’s movie” I mean that it mostly runs on child logic. There is no inciting incident that causes Peter to declare war on his grandfather beyond moving into a bedroom that even Ed doesn’t really want to be in. Even some of the other 12-year-olds in the movie point out more than once that this entire “war” is pretty stupid and should probably be abandoned, and it’s difficult to argue with them.
With the over the top antics of the story itself, you expect all the characters to be a bit amplified, and the are. Robert De Niro is great, because he basically always is. Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken and is always a joy to see on screen. If anybody deserves special recognition, it's Uma Thurman, who simply doesn't play roles like this very often and she really is solid with goofball comedy.
It’s an interesting choice to have your film’s characters point out your central plot is pointless.
But none of that is to say that there’s no fun to be had in The War with Grandpa. Younger viewers not particularly concerned with character motivation or logic, or just anybody who’s a fan of physical comedy like old men falling over or losing their pants, will certainly find there are laughs to be had. And even if that sort of thing isn’t quite your speed, Robert De Niro is in good company in The War with Grandpa, as his crew of retired accomplices includes Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin, and Jane Seymour, and those four are clearly here to have a good time together.
While the simple premise is good for a few laughs, there’s ultimately nothing particularly special about The War with Grandpa. Some of the pranks are funny, some are not. Some of them are creative, others not so much. For every high point, there’s a low that balances the movie into someplace in the muddy middle.
In the end, we know where The War with Grandpa is supposed to end up from the moment it starts, and if the movie ultimately paid off strong, some of the less than hilarious moments could probably be overlooked. But unfortunately, that simply doesn’t happen.
Robert De Niro is great, because of course he is.
A subplot regarding Ed’s son-in-law’s career is mentioned a couple of times but is ultimately left hanging with no resolution. One regarding Ed’s daughter, and her feeling’s toward her own daughter’s boyfriend, does get resolved, but not in any satisfying way. The main conflict's resolution shows just how young an audience The War With Grandpa is aiming for, as it’s heavy-handed in the way it literally has to explain its own point just to be sure nobody watching misses the subtext. And then it basically undoes all of that when it decides to tease a sequel at the end.
It’s difficult to be too hard on The War with Grandpa. The movie’s fine, I guess. It’s mostly harmless, though I honestly thought some of pranks went past funny and bordered on cruel and potentially dangerous. But then, I'm an old man who thinks about these things not the kid this movie is for. It’s got some funny moments, and it’ll probably make your kids laugh. If anything the film’s biggest flaw may be its decision to open in theaters when the audience that will find something to appreciate here, families with young children, is exactly the group that likely won’t be going to the theater right now.