The current flow of U.K. comedy talent from smallscreen to big continues with the middling laffer “What We Did on Our Holiday,” the writing-directing debut of the team behind much-loved Blighty sitcom “Outnumbered.” Re-creating the show’s winning formula of three amiably precocious young children trading smarts with fondly exasperated parents, the pic swings for a much more eventful story arc, with mixed results. Absent a brand-name title, BBC Films will struggle to match the rich profits of summer smash “Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie,” but “Holiday” might thrive as a something-for-everyone outing, appealing to family members as age-diverse as the film’s characters.
Ramping up the conflict in proportion to the bigger canvas, filmmakers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin present London couple Doug (David Tennant) and Abi (Rosamund Pike) on the verge of divorce, but co-opting their young offspring — Lottie (Emilia Jones), Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and Jess (Harriet Turnbull) — into a happy-families charade for the sake of cancer-stricken grandpa Gordie (a winning Billy Connolly), celebrating his 75th and probably final birthday party in his Scottish Highlands home. Anxious 9-year-old Lottie frets over the deception (“I need a list of lies we’re going to tell”), while energetic middle child Mickey and in-her-own-world infant Jess pursue their respective fixations with Vikings and a pair of large boulders she has designated as pets.
The film replicates the “Outnumbered” trick of utilizing improvisation to give the children’s dialogue that authentic kids-say-the-darnedest-things sparkle, but there’s more evidence here of scripting, given the various plot beats that must be effectively struck along the way. The tensions are not limited to Doug and Abi: A rivalry flares between Doug and his wealthy brother, Gavin (Ben Miller), a conceited social climber and financial trader who has a large Scottish mansion and life lessons to learn before the closing credits. Gavin’s wife is the high-strung Margaret (Amelia Bullmore), whose recent breakdown in the local supermarket, caught by the store’s CCTV cameras, is a ticking-timebomb YouTube treat.
Evidently keen to differentiate their film from the small-beer antics of their TV sitcom, Hamilton and Jenkin throw in a major plot development at the halfway point, which emphatically tugs “What We Did on Our Holiday” from its cozy family-comedy moorings. It’s a bold move, but one that risks capsizing the film, thanks to the scarcely credible extremity of the action taken by the three kids. It’s also one that fights against the sunny mood of the generically redemptive finale.
On a technical level, the interior compositions by lenser Martin Hawkins (“Outnumbered,” “Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie”) lack the barest artistic ambition, with only the majestic Scottish coastal locations providing any cinematic scale. For Pike, this ramshackle local comedy may turn out to be the swan song for the first portion of her film career, arriving on British screens just as “Gone Girl” looks set to push her onto the Hollywood A-list. Now that “Outnumbered” has finally run its course, with all three of the series’ child actors in their teens, a TV spinoff of “Holiday” might be welcomed by the BBC. Recasting at least one of the adult roles would appear to be an inevitability.