'Wimpy Kid,' Strong Movie
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
There's a funny and very astute scene early on in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," the mostly charming live-action adaptation of the first of Jeff Kinney's best-selling kids series about the terrifying jungle of middle school. Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), the star of the series and the author of said diary, is making his exit from the school after his first day of sixth grade. It hasn't been a good day, by any means, but it had been survivable. Until his best friend, pudgy, eager, good-natured Rowley (Robert Capron) issues an invitation to him, loudly and publicly, "Do you want to come over and play?"
Social suicide. Of course one ceases to "play" in junior high; as Greg had already explained to Rowley, you "hang out." But Rowley, puppylike, forgot the rules. Rowley is always forgetting the rules to social success, while Greg is obsessed with them. Greg is like a less likable version of Kevin Arnold from "The Wonder Years." He's a Geek (sadly, his drum-playing older brother Rodrick is the closest thing this movie has to a Freak) without the self-awareness. He's riddled with anxieties. He's dying to be special, to nab one of the class superlatives. In other words, he's a perfectly average middle schooler, and thus someone kids can really appreciate.
They certainly love Kinney's books. He's published four "Wimpy Kid" volumes since 2007 and a fifth will arrive this year, doubtless enjoying best-seller status like its predecessors. They feature simple cartoon drawings and a handwritten font. The crude, basic look speaks to the set that still thinks boogers are worth discussing, but it would have made an ugly movie. No wonder director Thor Freudenthal ("Hotel for Dogs") chose the live-action route, only incorporating elements of Kinney's artwork here and there.
It's a conundrum though, because that simplicity is also what made the Kinney books special, and some of his devotees may be disappointed to see the pen-and-ink characters, so generic, so easy to project onto, played by flesh-and-blood kids and even a few adults (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris are Greg's parents). But Gordon and particularly Capron seem well suited to the parts. Gordon has a wise-guy smugness you might imagine a very young Mark Wahlberg having, while Capron is darling as the frequently mistreated Rowley, whose sweetness transcends his dorky qualities. The evolution of their friendship as it goes through growing pains, provides the dramatic arc, such as it is, of the film.
Presumably to appeal to girls, screenwriters Jackie and Jeff Filgo added a female character, Angie, who is played by Chloe Moretz, the wise little sister from "(500) Days of Summer." Precocious Angie is supposed to be a misfit too, but her cunning way of wearing berets and blazers suggest a Hollywood-style misfit, not a real one.
What the movie gets right, sometimes in agonizing detail, are the humiliations and horrors of school, particularly at the age when most kids are going through extraordinary growth spurts and some, like Greg and Rowley, still look like little kids. They teeter on the brink of adolescence, not sure how to navigate the new world. How, for instance, does one trick-or-treat with coolness? How do you handle a bathroom stall without a door on it, a measure taken to cut down on behaviors you haven't even considered yet? Greg's approach to the last of these pitfalls is classic: "I'm not pooping until I'm in high school."
Fans of the book will be pleased to see the notorious cheese of the Cheese Touch game come to life. (A slice of highly processed Swiss cheese was dropped from a sandwich onto the playground many moons ago and now endures in hideous glory. Anyone who touches it experiences instant social apocalypse, and must pass on the curse.) It's a good gag, and Freudenthal plays it well for consistent laughs. Would that the same could be said for Greg's desperation to be popular. He's so cocky that he will be, just so as soon as he lights on the proper means, that he starts to get unpleasant to be around. Perhaps this is just one of the pitfalls of stretching a slim kids' book into a feature length film, but in a kids' movie, it is never a good sign when you hope that the teachable moment aspect of the story comes sooner rather than later.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.