He’s Not Likeable, but He’s Watchable: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days’

Almost every kids’ movie has that character you love to hate. You know the type. He’s the troublemaker, the smart aleck, the premature cynic. Yes, many children’s films feature these mini misanthropes, but the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise dares to put such a character at the center of the story.

Greg Heffley is not a likable kid. He’s not a role model and his troublemaking doesn’t spur from a thirst for adventure and a desire to see the world in new ways. Greg is lazy before all else, often putting more effort into avoiding life than living it. As the special feature FX Movie Channel Presents: Wimpy Empire reveals, this was intentional. Author Jeff Kinney wrote Greg as an imperfect, but realistic, middle schooler.

Perhaps Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days’ biggest strength is its young cast (though the grownups are good, too — more on that later). There are no cable castoff performances in these movies; the child actors are top notch, particularly the leads: Zachary Gordon, as Greg, Robert Capron as Greg’s bumbling BFF Rowley and Devon Bostick as nightmarish older brother Rodrick. Gordon carries the films, imbuing the character with a grounded familiarity that translates to reluctant likability. Greg might be a bit of an ass, but Gordon plays it with a quality of universal honesty that allows viewers to root for him.

Far more likable is the affably hapless Rowley, Greg’s best friend and unwitting accomplice in his constant string of cons. Rowley has naive optimism in spades, but he’s also willing to stick up for himself when the occasion calls for it (a necessary skill for a friend of Greg’s). Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days highlights Rowley’s growing strength in standing up to Greg’s manipulations (a perpetual problem in their friendship), but also reveals Rowley’s deeper appreciation for the adventures for which Greg drags him along. Greg’s relationship with Rowley was the focal point of the first film in the series, but has remained significant even as the Wimpy Kid story evolves.

Dog Days, the third (and probably final) installment in the Wimpy Kid film franchise, shifts focus from school drama, friendship struggles and sibling warfare (though all are touched upon, at least briefly) to a more complicated matter: The parent/child relationship. After sitting on Steve Zahn for two movies, the Wimpy Kid franchise finally made use of his talents, bringing front and center Greg’s relationship with his father, Frank. The two couldn’t be more different, at least on the face of things. Greg is lazy and video game-obsessed. Frank is a perpetual hobbyist (model building in the basement! Civil War reenactments on the weekends!) fixated on the idea of Greg spending his summer outdoors. The only thing they seem to agree upon is their mutual hatred for the mind-numbingly boring Lil’ Cutie cartoon in the local paper.

Extra screen time from Zahn and a laugh-out-loud funny script make Dog Days one of the strongest films in the series. In this installment, Greg navigates summer vacation, plotting to visit the local country club daily for the chance to talk to his crush, Holly Hills (played by rising Disney Channel darling Peyton List). Rowley and Holly are members of the club, but Greg isn’t. He’s allowed to tag along as Rowley’s guest, but when his father lands him an internship (the bizarre kind that enlists middle school students, apparently), he concocts a lie about already having landed a summer job (the illegal kind that employs minors, apparently) at the country club.

Greg’s lies build on one another and tangle until, finally, they unravel and he’s forced to face the truth. Not one to do the right thing until absolutely forced to, Greg is silent when the truth is revealed to the great disappointment and embarrassment of his dad. Zahn and Gordon play their respective disappointment and uncomfortable guilt expertly, driving home the realism of the father/son relationship at the center of the story.

Believable, moving characters and witty dialogue have propelled the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series to success on the big screen by landing them in that “fun for the whole family” zone usually reserved for the likes of Pixar. Dog Days will likely be the final installment (Gordon barely looks like a “kid” in this one and was already forced to speak in a higher octave to pass as a middle schooler this time around, according to the director commentary), but if it is, it ends the series on a high note.

The DVD extras are thin, but fun, with the FX Movie Channel featurette and director commentary from David Bowers standing out. The deleted scenes are not missed, but it’s always interesting to see where the fat was cut in editing, and the gag reel is likely to be a kid favorite.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is officially intended for children, but it’s the kind of film that will leave the whole family satisfied on movie night.

RATING 6 / 10