By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They’re formulaic, they’re familiar, and they’re family-friendly. So who cares if they’re funny?
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise, which focuses on the shared experience of middle-class, middle-school tweens, is aimed unapologetically at its target audience and demonstrates with plentiful observational humor that it knows them all too well. The audience is invited to laugh, sure, but they’re mostly encouraged to recognize, to cringe, and to think.
The onset of puberty and the antics that go with it are the order of the day – again – in this third helping of adolescent angst.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days follows 2010‘s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 2011’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules as the third installment in the series of kids’ comedies adapted from the best-selling graphic-novella series.
This second sequel, as relaxed as a summer vacation, is based on the third and fourth illustrated novels in the seven-book series — The Last Straw and Dog Days – by author and cartoonist Jeff Kinney, who is also the film’s executive producer.
Zachary Gordon plays Greg Heffley, who, after completing seventh grade, hopes to spend a lazy, relaxing summer just playing video games and pursuing his crush, Holly (Peyton List). But his plans as a slacker go kablooey when his parents (returning Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris) request that he be more ambitious and productive. They even threaten to send him to an objectionable prep school in the fall if he doesn’t shape up.
Greg decides to kill two birds with one stone by pretending he has a summer job at the luxurious country club he’s been invited to by his best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron) – who, along with Holly, is a member. And that’s where Greg goes every day when he tells his parents that he’s leaving for work.
Trouble is, Greg’s older brother, Rodrick (returning Devon Bostick), finds out and threatens to tell on Greg if he doesn’t help him gain him access to the club because of his interest in Holly’s older sister.
British director David Bowers (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules), who has directed several animated films (Flushed Away and Astro Boy), punctuates the film, as the first two installments did, with animated flourishes, working from a screenplay by Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes that indulges in what might be called silly sweetness.
But instead of swinging for the fences, the film settles for juvenile slapstick and Wonder Years-like charm, concentrating on getting the small things – and small people — right. And it does some of the time. The problem is that for every insightful moment or sensible life lesson, there’s another inauthentic exchange that tests our patience or indulgence.
And although Bowers keeps the overacting to an acceptable level, even as skilled a comedic veteran as Steve Zahn can’t quite transcend the lowest-common-denominator tone of the material.
It was way back in the first flick, all of two years ago, that Greg posed the question, ”Who wants to see a movie about a kid who’s stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons?”
The answer, it turns out, is middle school kids but no one of any other age group. And that’s reinforced with the lead character’s narration, which is aimed directly, almost conspiratorially, at the age-appropriate target audience.
The feeling is inescapable that although youngsters are likely to be passably entertained by this movie adaptation, something of value has been lost in the translation from page to screen.
So we’ll wimp out on 2 stars out of 4 for Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, a family-comedy sequel that doesn’t quite come apart but doesn’t quite come of age either.