Doug and Abi McLeod (David Tennant and Rosumand Pike) are in the middle of a rancorous divorce, but agree to travel to the Scottish Highlands for his father's 75th birthday celebrations. As Gordie (Billy Connolly) is quite ill, and presumably fragile, they coach their three children to keep up the pretence that all is well in their divided family. The children, feeling constantly caught in a storm of adult animosity, eventually take a drastic and spontaneous effort to spare their grandfather from the incessant bickering when he expresses a wish to avoid it, and their decision has far-reaching and painful consequences.
Though the trailers and official website proudly declare its top-name cast, this film is primarily about the children, Lottie (Emilia Jones), Mickey (Bobby Smalldridge) and Jess (Harriet Turnbull), as they deal with the emotional fallout of their parents' split and the further clashes between Doug and his brother Gavin (Ben Miller) once they arrive in the Highlands.
The two eldest, Lottie and Mickey, in particular, are engaging and clever characters whose actions may appear misguided, but are justified in a well-presented process of thought. Their eccentricities, like keeping a notebook full of the lies she's told, or a reasonably-researched obsession with Odin, are at once unique to them and typical of children seeking refuge from difficult times.
The youngest character, Jess, provides less value to the story and appears to be on-screen to increase the cuteness factor. As adorable as Harriet Turnbull is, this device is overused, and becomes tired quickly. Her lines rarely add any amount of substance to the scenes, and the repeated use of 'Well, that's just rude' is too reminiscent of the Olsen twins' late '80s catchphrase, and feels just as stock and rote as it did twenty-five years ago. Used more sparingly, I believe, this character would have been much more enjoyable, but instead, she became something to endure, which, given her young age and innocence in the whole affair, induces a bit of unwanted guilt at the resentment she begins to breed.
The adults in this film, while talented in their performances, are really just props to set the scene for the children's conflict. There is little character development beyond what's needed to drive the younger set's motivations. The only exception to this is Billy Connolly, who seems to have been meted out the best lines of the script. He is entertaining in the familiar role of wise-and-rebellious patriarch, and his chemistry with the children is wonderfully heart-warming. The film's best scenes are those with just the four of them.
This film has a fair few really fantastic moments -- some touching, some laugh-out-loud funny -- and most are worth the time spent treading water in between them. I would recommend this film if you go in for cheesy family fare with fairly dark topics lightened with a bit of silly humour (which I do). It's far from perfect, but in the end, leaves a nice aftertaste that, though it likely won't linger long, makes 'What We Did on Our Holiday' worth seeing.