The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books are about middle school. And while 12-year-old kids can certainly enjoy them (as can any number of adults), they also reach a younger, elementary school audience. This kind of fluid readership doesn’t seem to present serious problems for publishers, but big-studio movies, especially for younger audiences, are typically designed with a near-mercenary focus, with very particular demographic targets in mind.
And so the voice of middle-schooler Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) becomes broader and sillier when translated from the page into a budding Nickelodeon-ish franchise. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, the second film adapted from the series, arrives just a year after the first, shot quickly before its young stars age out of their parts. Surprisingly, given this speed, the new film has a bit more charm than its predecessor, even as it stays planted in kids’ movie territory.
One of the most puzzling bumps in Wimpy Kid‘s initial journey from page to screen was that the live-action Greg didn’t seem wimpy so much as hapless and a little craven as he tried to fit in at school. In Rodrick Rules, Gordon still comes off like a more arrogant version of the everykid Fred Savage played on The Wonder Years, but he’s more concerned with what goes on at home, in particular, his relationship with older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick, looking like an evil Jimmy Fallon).
In the first movie, Rodrick served only as an aggressively unpleasant source of torment to Greg. The same holds here, but as their contentiousness is increasingly frustrating for their mother, Susan (Rachael Harris), she insists they “spend time” together. This leads to a series of mishaps, as might be expected, as well as a moment of bonding after Greg agrees to lie about the party Rodrick throws in their parents’ absence. Sometimes their new amity is productive (Rodrick tries to help Greg with girl problems), and sometimes it descends into typical Heffley bumbling (Rodrick lends Greg an old, inadequate paper for a school assignment). Greg is delighted to escape his brother’s wrath, but feels conflicted about lying to his parents, a sentimental shared and doubled by his good-hearted buddy Rowley (Robert Capron), who remains a comedic highlight thanks to his boundless enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness.
All of this is somewhat funnier and warmer than Greg’s escapades in the first film, if drawn with similarly broad strokes. New director David Bowers is an animation veteran, and it shows both in his clever sight gags (particularly the variety of acts performed during a school talent show) and the occasionally strained pratfalls that don’t quite look right in live-action. He also sometimes cuts to quick, funny fantasy sequences, which don’t seem so far removed from the movie’s cartoony version of reality.
This heightened reality speaks to the difficulty of translating teenage behavior for all-ages consumption. Screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah worked on Freaks and Geeks, which featured a similar relationship between a geeky kid and his older, more rebellious sibling. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid style doesn’t permit that show’s details, its insights or subtlety, but it’s a shame that the movie can’t at least nudge the dialogue and behavior in a slightly more convincing, less antic direction.
Rodrick, for example, is at least 16, yet his most outlandish behavior involves a party where kids chug soda and eat junk food, and playing pranks with fake vomit. Middle-schoolers don’t necessarily need to see beer-soaked blowouts and debauchery—Rodrick’s actual dorkiness turns out to be kind of sweet—but they can probably handle a little more than watching kids get brain-freezes from icy drinks at the convenience store.
At its worst, these kinds of compromises result in the dullness of the High School Musical series, which depicts adolescence as it might be imagined by a moony seven-year-old. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules never approaches that level of whitewashing; it’s too steeped in the embarrassments and minor triumphs of an awkward age. But even with the sequel’s improvements, it stops well short of a truly indelible middle-school portrait. More than the comics-infused books, it feels like a comic-book version of real life.