Quietly, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid has transitioned successfully from a massively popular youth book series to an impressively lucrative film series. While the talent involved have not become household names, and the book series’ popularity far outweighs the film’s brand recognition, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid is now a full-blown cinematic trilogy, so far returning 4-5 times the investment in terms of box office gross to production costs.
And yet, I know of no one clamoring for these films to keep arriving each year. These films have combined for $150 million in worldwide box office receipts thus far and I guarantee you most people could not pick Zachary Gordon out of a lineup. Or Devon Bostick. They likely cannot recall any memorable moments from the first two films. These movies just exist, make their money, and drift off into the ether. I think cable movie channels play them, but I never see them in the listings. Then again, I am not looking. Neither are my kids. Neither are you.
Here, Dog Days refers to the summer and the tired and shop-worn premise of a middle-school kid wanting to have the Best Summer Ever! Greg has determined that he is going to play video games all day and everyday, scam his father (Steve Zahn) somewhat on completing his daily chores, not really help his mother (Rachael Harris) take care of younger brother, Manny (Connor and Owen Fielding), and have a care-free, largely responsibility-free summer. He also wants to get to know the prettiest and most popular girl in the school, Holly Hills (Peyton List), just a little bit better. A snafu in yearbook signing on the last day of school leaves Greg without Holly’s digits. Through a curious stroke of good luck and opportunity, Greg’s best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), will be spending his summer with his family at the same exclusive country club that Holly’s family belongs to. Rowley invites Greg to join him everyday. Holly teaches tennis lessons to a kids beginners class. Greg sees Holly everyday. All is well in the world.
Greg’s older brother, Roderick (Devon Bostick) may be less menacing to Greg, but is still an irresponsible dolt and parlays his crush on Holly’s spoiled 16-year old sister, Heather (Melissa Roxburgh), into convincing Greg to sneak him into the club everyday. On top of that, Greg and his dad Frank are not seeing eye-to-eye. Frank wants to see Greg mature and take on more responsibility and Greg wants to be a middle school kid on summer vacation. When Greg informs his dad that he is working at the country club, Greg’s dad becomes proud of his son, blissfully unaware that a country club of this exclusivity would never employ a minor. But I digress.
Having seen all three of these films now, I have to say that Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is the best film in the series There are moments that made me laugh out loud and smile, arguably for the first time in the franchise. Having a peripheral knowledge of the books, Dog Days gave me some insight into why the books remain so insanely popular. Perhaps director David Bowers (Flushed Away, Astro Boy) has developed some understanding now in how to direct live action, since he took the leap with 2011’s Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Maybe the actors have matured enough to settle into their rules this third time in. For the first time, the lead youth performances from Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron, as Greg and Rowley, mismatched best friends, do not feel forced and false; the two main characters actually developing some believable chemistry for once.
For me and others I know, watching Diary Of A Wimpy Kid films in the past have been an experience that falls somewhere between mind-numbing and boring. Here at least, David Bowers reigns his cast in just enough to try and stifle some of the unrestrained energy that buckled the first offerings. For awhile, this Wimpy Kid is enjoyable, but eventually the film caves in on itself and everything becomes a mess.
Several thoughts actually jump to mind when considering this series. Why is this not a television series on Nickelodeon or Disney instead? Perhaps this all might have worked better as an animated series of films, a medium which would preserve some of the manic and excitable energy found in Jeff Kinney’s children’s stories. I dunno. With three more books existing in the series, are we getting three…more…films?!?!
To me, when you treat these films less like a story and more like a strung-together series of vignettes, the ability to connect with characters and motivations is completely lost. You can show me that Rowley is a lovable, puppy dog of a friend and remind me how immature Rodrick is. You can show me an aloof father and overwhelmed mother, and their middle-school aged son trying to navigate to a place of respectability and acceptance in middle school, all while trying to impress The Girl. However, if you just collage these moments on the screen and don’t truly link them together cohesively, then how could anyone truly relate to these characters or experiences?
I wonder if Jeff Kinney believes his vision, his popular and beloved vision, has been truly brought to life on screen. I wonder if he has any regrets. His work and his series deserve better and despite encouraging flashes of what this series could and can be, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days offers nothing more than a whimper. .