Selling 28 million books, it seemed a no-brainer that some studio would turn Jeff Kinney’s kidlit phenomenon into a major motion picture and that is exactly what 20th Century Fox has done in Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. Along the way this tale of a smart-ass, free-mouthed pre-teen and his calamitous adventures in middle school has been homogenized to the point where you wouldn’t be wrong to redub it Malcolm In The Middle: The Movie. Nevertheless, it possesses enough PG rated gross-out gags and recognizable antics (to junior high schoolers and their nostalgia-inclined parents at least) along with that “best seller” pedigree to register a fairly decent opening and a hell of an afterlife on DVD.
The book, described as a “novel in cartoons,” contained sketchy drawings and droll observations on life among the 12 year old set. Published in 2007 it spent nearly 3 years on the New York Times children’s best seller list and was translated into 33 languages, giving Fox’s international division reason to believe this is one domestic comedy that will travel. More importantly, the Wimpy Kid phenomenon has caught on in social networking circles—meaning its film version could be an eagerly awaited property and surprise hit.
The decision to turn this into a live action flick (instead of an animation where its jr. hipster sensibilities might be less compromised) has necessarily made its central character, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), a little less savage and a little more Fred Savage than Kinney’s prose portrays him. To Heffley, middle school is full of social misfits and moronic cliques, it’s a colossal waste of time and features a parade of characters he knows will never affect his later life. To survive he jots it all down in his “journal,” which one day will tell the tale of his ‘tween humiliations. He‘s an endless schemer, along with chubby and cherubic best friend Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron) and together they engage in all sorts of shenanigans that are recounted in episodic fashion throughout the film: there’s the rotting piece of cheese on the school playground and the legends of kids who came into contact with its cooties; there are fearsome wrestling matches; there’s the disastrous Halloween outing enlivened by a trio of older punks and their chainsaw; big brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) puts Heffley through endless domestic terrors while goody two-shoes classmate Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeill) inflicts her mental torture, meanwhile Heffley suffers all other indignities—even though he himself is often insufferable.
Gordon is bit too good looking to really be the Greg Heffley the books detail, but he’s not obnoxious in the role and will appeal to the target ‘tween set. Capron is ideal as BFF Rowley and steals all the scenes he’s in. The other kids, particularly Grayson Russell and Chloe Moretz (Kick Ass), are well-cast too, each reminding us of a certain “type” that apparently exists in the class lineup for every generation. Although the film focuses on school life there is also ample time spent at home, with clueless dad (Steve Zahn) and wise mom (Rachael Harris), where Greg is the middle kid between the older ‘bro who constantly picks on him and baby ‘bro who is always taking a dump in his port-a-potty.
The real question for this Wimpy Kid is whether there’s a life beyond the fickle pre-teen set at which it’s aimed. At the very least it plays like a great pilot for a new Fox family sitcom. Malcolm is in his twenties now. They could use a new one.
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris, Devon Bostick, Chloe Moretz and Grayson Russell.
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Screenwriters: Jackie Filgo and Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah
Producers: Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson
Genre: Family Comedy
Rating: PG for some rude humor and language
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: March 19, 2010