3.5 stars; rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor
STARRING: Zachary Gordon, Steve Zahn, Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris, Peyton List, Grayson Russell, Karan Brar, Laine MacNeil
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Few things are dependable in Hollywood, but the movie adaptations of Jeff Kinney’s “Wimpy Kid” books are a welcome exception.
Various filmmaking teams have hewed closely to the all-essential tone established in Kinney’s books. Additionally, the clever means of animating his books’ stick-figure artwork — for title credits, and as transitional segments between live-action escapades — further reassures fans that these characters are in good hands.
Indeed. They’re also in good acting hands, and this continuity is just as pleasant. Although different cute girls have wandered in and out of hapless Greg Heffley’s orbit — it’s a shame Chloë Grace Moretz’s career took off, because it would have been nice to see her character again — the rest of the cast members have been a refreshing constant.
Best of all, director David Bowers and the production team possess the wisdom to resist the numbnuts slapstick that infects far too many so-called “family films” these days. To be sure, Greg’s various misadventures are mildly exaggerated for comic effect, but nothing here seems wholly inconceivable. And while some adults are held up for ridicule, that’s mostly a function of the way kids view their parents, as opposed to an indictment of anybody over the age of consent.
With school having let out for the summer, Greg (Zachary Gordon) is looking forward to endless days parked in front of the family TV set, playing his beloved video games. Alas, his parents have other ideas; his father (Steve Zahn, as Frank), in particular, wants his middle son to be more of an outdoor type, like the sports-minded boys who live across the street.
This strikes Greg as the height of absurdity, since he is — by his own admission — hardly anybody’s idea of well-toned physicality. And, truthfully, Frank should know better; his fondness for spending hours painting Civil War miniatures isn’t any different than Greg’s devotion to video games. And if you think there’s a lesson to be learned here, you’re correct.
Initially, though, Greg and his father have nothing in common … except their shared loathing of a sappy daily newspaper comic strip called “Li’l Cutie” … which seems a case of Kinney making fun of his own artistic stylings.
While dodging his father’s efforts to engage him in manly pursuits, Greg accepts an invitation to join best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) at his parents’ country club. This oasis of luxury — a universe removed from the horrors of the town’s public pool — comes complete with side benefits such as bottomless smoothies served by polite attendants, and the presence of adorable Holly Hills (Peyton List), still the unattainable object of Greg’s desire.
Unfortunately, the country club’s members also include the much-feared Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeil), who lives to humiliate our poor young hero.
Greg’s older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), generally keeps to himself; this changes when he learns of Greg’s sudden proximity to Holly … because Rodrick has been trying to impress her older sister, the hilariously stuck-up Heather (Melissa Roxburgh). Rodrick still believes that the best way to a woman’s heart is through music, and thus constantly seeks a means of exposing Heather to his ghastly garage band, Loded Diper.
Greg’s sidebar excursions and setbacks include a weekend stay at a cabin, with Rowley’s sickeningly sweet parents; the addition of a large, slobbery dog — dubbed Sweetie — to the Heffley household; and Frank’s various methods of trying to bond with Greg, which include a camping trip and an internship at his office. Greg escapes the latter only by claiming to have secured a job at the country club: a lie that’s bound to be detected eventually, and he knows it.
At which point, Greg fears, his parents may give up on him completely, and ship him off to a nearby private academy for recalcitrant boys. And nothing would be worse than that.
Gordon continues to be just right as Greg: somewhat dweebish, always testing boundaries and seeking shortcuts — like any kid — and mischievous to a degree that stops short of anything truly harmful. His Walter Mitty-esque daydreams — so hilariously depicted in Kinney’s books — aren’t as prevalent this time out, but that’s all right; Greg finds plenty of real-world ways to be his own worst enemy.
Zahn once again displays his talent for befuddled slow takes and hilariously frozen stares, the latter put to good use each time Frank gets in trouble with his wife, Susan (Rachael Harris). It could be argued, however, that Sweetie’s presence skews this film’s tone in the wrong direction; Frank becomes a buffoon whenever the dog is around, and at least one sight gag is swiped from the Bumpus hounds in “A Christmas Story.”
Bostick, as always, is just right as the obnoxious, spelling-challenged older brother who believes black eyeliner to be the height of rock ’n’ roll fashion. Younger brother Manny, still played by twins Connor and Owen Fielding, exists mostly for some gross sight gags … such as the little guy’s notion of soap.
Capron is marvelous as the meek, fearful Rowley: the stereotypical sheltered kid whose parents have done him no favors by “protecting” him from the horrors of the real world … such as a hair-raising carnival ride called the Cranium Shaker. At the same time, Rowley possesses core values of integrity that are somewhat lacking in Greg’s character, and the wide-eyed Capron lands more than a few perceptive remarks.
That’s the major thrust of these stories, of course: Everybody in Greg’s world — whether his parents, best friend or even older brother — serves as a collective, de facto conscience. Gentle lessons are learned, although scripters Maya Forbes (“The Larry Sanders Show”) and Wally Wolodarsky (“The Simpsons”) take pains to avoid sounding preachy.
Grayson Russell returns as the gross and socially unacceptable Fregley, and diminutive Karan Brar makes the most of his brief scenes as the amusingly solemn, wise-cracking Chirag. Watch closely, and you’ll spot Kinney during a crowd scene at Heather’s “Sweet 16” party.
Sadly, Gordon already is maturing beyond his somewhat undernourished stature as a “wimpy kid,” and his voice has deepened a bit. Kinney’s seven books remain fixed in their middle school setting, which Gordon is outgrowing; 20th Century Fox needs to gamble aggressively and rush three more films through back-to-back production during the next 12 months, in order to keep the cast intact, and so we can enjoy Greg Heffley’s antics for the next several years.
“Wimpy Kid” still rules.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com