Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
Directed by David Bowers
A seminal trilogy adapted from beloved graphic-novel characters comes to a climactic end this summer: yes, the long-awaited final chapter of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is upon us. And while this two-and-a-half-year race against puberty has concluded with puberty claiming temporary victory over Jeff Kinney's as-yet unadapted books (at least until the inevitable TV series reboot), Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days gets its last licks by compressing story elements from the third and fourth installments into 95 minutes of kid-friendly middle-school traumas.
I'm not sure if the series has mellowed with age, or if I've just grown numb to its broad touches, but Dog Days feels a touch sweeter and less antic than its predecessor—just as the second film marked a mild uptick in quality. Here, like a mini-bro version of the Ramona books, the focus stays on Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) and his father (Steve Zahn). Zahn isn't the obvious choice to perform a blustery, put-upon dad routine, but playing gruff against his natural goofiness proves surprisingly effective; his bugged-out eyes serve as a beacon, reminding the audience that he probably won't actually send Greg to an uptight reform school. Given the dominant Disney Channel-Nickelodeon aesthetic, in which tween-targeted entertainment casts parents as either madcap foils or happily absent, the father-son dynamic lends the various episodes—seriously, this could be four decent but unrelated kidcom episodes cut together a la To Rome with Love—some unifying pathos.
Don't misunderstand: there are still JV Farrelly Brothers-style gross-outs and lots of mild slapstick gags. Moreover, this is still a movie about Greg Heffley, who, in the move from ink to flesh, has something in common with some less fortunate, pre-Bale cinematic incarnations of Batman: he is pretty much the least interesting person on screen at any given time. I'm not sure if that makes Zachary Gordon the Val Kilmer of the tween set; regardless of the young actor's abilities, Heffley is the one character whose likability the filmmakers never seem to find. At least Dog Days finally gives him some actual wimpiness—he's apprehensive about a crowded public pool, afraid of reform school—mixed with, as ever, the not particularly charming sight of a dorky, average-intelligence kid with little compassion trying really hard to be cool. In the books, Jeff Kinney's art has an appealing Peanuts graphic simplicity, but in the films, Greg is like a toolish Kevin Arnold without the wry Daniel Stern narration.
Kids (and/or their abiding parents or guardians) who see through Greg's callowness have plenty of other characters to focus on; I've grown surprisingly fond of the cheery, open-hearted mama's boy Rowley (Robert Capron) and Patty (Laine MacNeil), the sour-faced, pigtailed despiser of Greg Heffley. If the movie stays resolutely cartoony, it at least does so via a well-appointed quality-control team: director David Bowers oversaw the underappreciated Aardman production Flushed Away, while husband-and-wife screenwriting team Wallace Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes are a 90s sitcom-penning power couple: she worked on The Larry Sanders Show, while he's a Simpsons staff writer credited with the funniest episode ever (strike, not monorail). Does this pedigree render Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days the hilarious, honest portrait of young adolescence you've all been waiting for? It does not. But it does make the movie amusing, good-hearted, and at least marginally worthy of the nostalgic fondness that may be in the mail from the twentysomethings of the future.
Opens August 3