James Jay Edwards reviews The War with Grandpa, a family comedy film adapted from a children’s book, directed by Tim Hill and starring Robert De Niro. (101 Studios)
Robert De Niro is one of the most celebrated actors in cinematic history. Yet, for as storied and serious as his career has been, he’s always done fun movies, too. For every Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, there’s a Meet the Parents or an Analyze This. The War with Grandpa is more of this fun – and funny – De Niro.
The War with Grandpa is about a boy named Peter (Pete’s Dragon’s Oakes Fegley) whose parents invite his recently widowed grandfather, Ed (De Niro), to come and live with the family. But that’s not the bad part. Grandpa is given Peter’s room, and the boy is shoved into the creepy, bat-infested attic. To get his room back, Peter declares war on his grandfather, enlisting his school chums to help him drive the old man crazy with pranks. But Ed has pranks – and friends – of his own and fights back with a vengeance.
(The War with Grandpa, theatrical release poster, 101 Studios)
The premise behind The War with Grandpa is hilarious enough for the 1984 children’s book by Robert Kimmel Smith to have amassed a huge following. It’s a wonder that it’s taken over 35 years for the story to hit the big screen. The screenwriting team of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (who also teamed up for Get Smart and Home) adapted the beloved novel, and director Tim Hill (Alvin and the Chipmunks) brought their words to life. And De Niro provided input the entire time. Which is good, because De Niro’s presence, both on and offscreen, makes the movie.
De Niro doesn’t do anything halfway, so even his lighter movies get full commitment from him. The War with Grandpa is basically De Niro being himself, and having fun doing it. He even brought along some friends to play “his gang” – Christopher Walken, Cheech Marin, and Jane Seymour all show up as his wartime accomplices. The parents are also played by Uma Thurman and Rob Riggle, so there’s no shortage of star power in the film. Of course, De Niro’s involvement isn’t the whole reason that such a big-name cast showed up for The War with Grandpa, but it surely didn’t hurt at all, either.
(The War with Grandpa, 101 Studios)
As for the movie itself, it’s pretty much Home Alone with no real antagonist. Although Peter frames his Grandfather as the villain, De Niro’s Ed is far too likeable to be an affective enemy. So, essentially, The War with Grandpa is a lot of hysterical entertainment without much drama. And that’s all that it pretends to be.
And the war between “Secret Warrior” and “Senior Soldier” (as they code-name themselves on their “rules of engagement”) is nothing if not entertaining. The pranks range from old school to high-tech, from classic shaving cream gags to flying drones. There’s even a side-splitting, grudge match of a game of dodgeball. Both Peter and Ed are whip-smart and insanely clever (even if Ed has trouble with automatic checkout machines), so the pranks get more and more inventive as the movie goes on. And more destructive. And, even though the Rules of Engagement call for “No Collateral Damage,” there’s plenty of it, especially when it comes to Peter’s poor mom (who is Ed’s daughter).
(The War with Grandpa, 101 Studios)
Grandpa Ed is also a cunning strategist. He gets into Peter’s head, feeding the boy’s paranoia and suspicion. Peter doesn’t know if things that are happening to him are bad luck accidents or the results of Grandpa’s sneaky sabotage. And in some cases, neither does the audience. But all is fair in war, right?
Of course, because it’s based on a children’s book, The War with Grandpa has a message, and it’s a heavy-handed, if necessary, one. Peter learns lessons about war that, frankly, a lot of adults in very important political positions should probably learn, too. Maybe The War with Grandpa should be required viewing on Capitol Hill.