Anyone who’s seen an episode of Outnumbered will be well prepared for What We Did On Our Holiday. Creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin have taken the show’s formula – a hopelessly disorganised family with three amusingly sharp kids and two struggling parents – as a starting point and grown it expertly into a film that’s warm, lovable and consistently funny.
If it wasn’t for the presence of a different cast, the film’s first 20 minutes could almost be taken straight from an episode of the BBC comedy; scenes of the two parents bickering and struggling to get the children ready are as familiar as the true-to-life dialogue (it’s only minutes before David Tennant’s gawky father Doug is struggling to explain to his youngest daughter why she can’t take her pet breeze block – nicknamed Norman – to Scotland with them). We’re immediately thrown into a hectic whirlwind of family life that’s filled with misunderstandings, badly kept secrets and the type of deep and wonderfully abstract questions that only small children can ask; it’s a world that’s easy to relate to and even easier to get swept up in.
As the family travel up to the Scottish Highlands to visit Doug’s terminally ill father Gordy (Billy Connolly) for his 75th birthday, the action moves seamlessly from a TV-ready domestic setting into full-length feature film territory. And it works. Rather than the humour losing its charm, the comedy builds and gathers momentum as the family arrive at Gordy’s house and more awkward relatives are introduced. Ben Miller is on solid form as Doug’s controlling brother Gavin, and there are some amusing scenes where the younger children mercilessly question him about his job, his house and how rich he is, and the only response he can produce is spluttering, red-faced indignation.
As enjoyable as the build-up is, though, the real triumph of the film is its second act, which sees the children take a trip to the beach with their Granddad. The script’s tone is pitch perfect, flitting easily between the shiny comedy that rests on the film’s surface and the more adult themes that are never too far below – thoughts about life and death and the revelations that come with age are beautifully captured in the dialogue between Gordy and his anxiety-prone granddaughter Lottie (Emilia Jones), with the scene managing to perfectly capture the simple understanding that can sometimes exist between people at opposite ends of their lives. Billy Connolly plays his role brilliantly, and the children are so natural it’s easy to believe you’re watching the workings of a real family.
The film’s final act and too-drawn-out ending are its only weaknesses. They puncture the perfect bubble of the second act and bring us back into the world of adults – a world where the stories and the dialogue are still engaging, but nothing seems quite as funny or as believable as it did before. It’s a shame, but it’s not enough to spoil a big screen debut that’s so well executed in every other way.