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I remember seeing the trailer for the original Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie sometime in late 2009. I knew that it was based off of a series of young adult comic-style novels, but knew little else other than that. The trailer intrigued me because it made it appear to be a sweet and straightforward film, and one that wouldn’t necessary lie to kids or try to present them with a glossy and polished version of alternate reality. After looking into the series via Wikipedia, I felt all the more confident that Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as a whole, would be one of the more interesting features directed towards children in a long time. This would most certainly end up being the case.
Though I missed the initial film in theaters (being busy during the last semester of grad school and all), I caught it when it was released on to home video in late summer 2010. The first Wimpy Kid film is very well done, bringing the books series of comic misadventures and imagination to the screen effectively. Directed by German filmmaker Thor Freudenthal (who himself created Wimpy Kid-like comics as a child), the first film works best as an introduction to complicated main character Greg Heffley (portrayed incredibly by young actor Zachary Gordon) and his incredibly realistic family, including his bully of an older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick, in a manic and terrifying performance), younger brother Manny, and parents Susan and Frank (Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn, who is fantastic as the put-upon dad). The relationships between family members are very realistically captured for what is essentially a broad children’s comedy film.
The best aspect of the film, in fact, is how genuinely realistic it is in its portrayal of life through the eyes of a middle-schooler. The middle school is an almost terrifying environment, with the threat of tyrannical teachers and menacing bullies all around. Wimpy Kid works best in this environment, as young Greg struggles to fit in amongst his peers. His friendship with neighborhood boy Rowley (portrayed well by Robert Capron) is another highlight. The middle school years are some of the most embarrassing times in a young person’s life, and this film’s portrayal of middle school doesn’t spare on the embarrassment either.
The second film in the series, subtitled Rodrick Rules, feels a bit more grown up than the original. Our young characters, now aged a year older, are a little more interested in girls, hijinks, and whacky adventures than in the previous installment. Older brother Rodrick is more of a main character, and his relationship with younger brother Greg is the focal point of the film. Rodrick Rules features all of the characters of the first film minus Chloe Grace Moretz, whose absence goes almost unnoticed. Her “replacement” as the main female character is Peyton List, who plays middle schooler Holly Hills, Greg’s love interest. Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris receive considerably more screen time as well, which is always welcomed.
Rodrick Rules feels like a different film from the first, but in a good way. Directed by David Bowers, the main plot of the second film revolves around Greg attempting to mend his relationship with his older brother while also continuing to survive the hell that is middle school. I like this film more than the first, actually. The characters have experience significant growth from the first film. Greg has come to accept himself more, and his friendship with Rowley, while it still has its ups and downs, is mended and continues to be genuine.
The best part of Rodrick Rules is Devin Bostick’s Rodrick character. Rodrick is complicated, dirty, terrifying, and also very funny. His best scenes include hosting a teenage party while the parents are away for the night, pulling pranks at the local 7-11-styled convenience store, and his continual love/hate relationship with his younger brother, which reminds me so much of the relationship I had with my older brother, who was also in high school while I was stuck in middle school. Greg’s continued growth as a character is also nice, and his relationship with his peers has its entertaining ups and downs as well. Though the first film is more novel, the second is more entertaining. The basic characters having already been established, the film is able to jump right into the thick of things without worrying too much about exposition.
The big weakness of these films is that their plots are never really all that exciting, nor do they ever really tread upon un-walked grounds. Being that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies are incredibly slice-of-life, there is never much of a focus on plot. That makes the second film seem somewhat derivative of the first, even if it really is not (due to the subtle character growth and progression from the first film to the second). It was probably a good idea then to set the third film, Dog Days, during the summer, a season the first two films barely touched upon. Taking the series away from the confines of the prison-like middle school will hopefully bring fresh air into what is probably the last of the theatrically-released Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies. In short, I’ll be there to check out this promising-looking summer film this weekend.