“There have been better films that I have enjoyed less.” For a little while after I first started reviewing movies, I didn’t understand that logic some others were displaying. Shouldn’t how much you enjoyed yourself be a deciding factor? But now I think I get it. I would rather rewatch this movie than Tenet, which I gave a higher grade to. But that movie was admittedly a bit better at what it was trying to do. This is one of the most regretful low grades I’ve done in a long time, because I know kids will love it, and there’s still a lot of that target audience in me. But when all things are considered, even with some good delivery there are so many better kids comedies than this.
This is based on a children’s book I haven’t read, and I can’t help but wonder if it has the same problems. The Decker family’s your typical family down the road you’re always paying attention to to see what shouts will be heard across the neighbourhood today. Uma Thurman and Rob Riggle play the parents of Peter, who’s played by Oakes Fegley (the mildly overhyped Pete’s Dragon and the unforgivably unappreciated The Goldfinch). There’s also the big sister fed up with being mothered while she’s trying to date, and a little sister always wanting to cheer someone up.
Two hours away is Peter’s grandpa Ed (the one and only Robert De Niro), who after some trouble with the new self-checkout at his supermarket, ends up losing his license, so he’s forced by his uptight daughter (Thurman) to move in with them, and Peter is forced out of his room and up to the attic, and his grandpa can’t take the attic instead because of the required extra stairs (though we later learn Ed’s perfectly fine with some hands-on work way more drastic than another set of stairs). Peter decides to declare war, trying to prank his grandpa out of his room so he can have it again. But Ed’s fought in real wars, and though he’s his grandson, he’s maybe not so relenting.
Two of director Tim Hill’s other similar productions have been Max Keeble’s Big Move, (an A+ movie) nearing its 20th anniversary, and the second Garfield movie (a B movie) which was made probably the best it could’ve been. Both involved playful hero against tall (often geriatric) villain. Or four at once. The premise and setting also reminded me of 2016’s Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life movie adaptation (a B+ movie). What made all of those movies work in their slapstick against the antagonist(s) was they were unlikeable (but funny). Max Keeble was up against school bullies who’d steal his money and throw him in the dumpster, an ice cream man perfectly fine with making his paper routes a little harder, and a corrupt principal doing crimes and putting innocent animals in danger for a scheme. The second Garfield had Billy Connolly trying to cheat his way into an inheritance by killing the true inheritor (Garfield’s English clone) and feeding all the farm animals to tourists. “Filthy monsters” he refers to them with zero compassion. The Middle School movie had a principal who destroyed the protagonist’s art book despite him not doing anything wrong. It makes sense to go on the offence on these antagonists. But here?
I partially understand Peter’s anger. A bedroom you’ve lived in your whole life; it’s tough moving out of a bedroom you’ve always lived and can never go back to calling your room, especially to a 12-year-old being tormented at school and facing the horrifying life changes everyone at that age faces. Thing is, it would’ve been easier to completely sympathize with Peter, as in, being against Ed becoming the new room owner, if Ed hadn’t, say, deliberately seen Peter in years, or if Ed didn’t see the big deal Peter was going through, or if Ed was rude and flawed. But the fatal blow in the end is, because Ed is such a likeable and understanding person and grandfather, the sense this is all not just unnecessary but mean-spirited is everpresent in the aftermath of the slapstick.
Some of this is pretty funny. I even laughed out loud a few times, especially a sabotaged report and a conspicuously raunchy ringtone trick. I might even rewatch sections of this film in the future. And it’s even willing to look across what people of all ages face, from six-year-olds not understanding when others need alone time, teenagers who feel they’re left out of everything and have to sneak by their parents to have any freedom, parents who forget they were teenagers once but try to do the right thing, and elders grieving over the loss of friends or loved ones. Some of the stunts reminded me of YouTube couples who do prank wars for the suspense and fun. But if only it was just for fun. At the very least, kids who do find the idea of losing their fortress/their room horrifying will learn a lesson about letting things go when there’s other more important things. It’s just sad how many more ways there are out there to send that message.