Perhaps I’m getting mellower in my old age. No way this thirty-one-year-old writer would find enjoyment in watching the pratfalls of a middle school kid as he finishes the seventh grade, now looking forward to summer break. Unless. Unless he can recall his own experiences, from navigating the halls of a secondary school and the growing pains that went along with growing up. Thankfully the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, based on the popular kids’ novels by Jeff Kinney, does a good job at exploring the growth of the beleaguered Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) as he makes his way through middle school.
In the first DoaWK, Greg was entering the sixth grade and was mostly a jerk to his best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). That was the biggest strike against the movie. How can you have a kids’ movie with a protagonist that is unlikeable? Skipping the sequel (subtitled Roderick Rules) I went into Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days knowing very little, aside from Greg and Rowley getting into some shenanigans at an amusement park and Greg losing his swim trunks at the top of a diving platform.
The film opens on Greg’s final days in the seventh grade, and while he should be a happy camper (he hates camping, by the way), Greg fears that his summer vacation will be one spent mostly outside at the urging of his parents. All he wants to do is play video games all hours of the day with the drapes drawn, and with an endless supply of junk food and a six-pack – of Coke – by his side. And when he isn’t getting blisters on his thumbs, Greg wants to venture beyond the “friend zone” and get closer to the prettiest girl in his grade, Holly Hills (Peyton List).
His fears are realized when his father Frank (Steve Zahn) takes away the video games and attempts to do some father-son bonding with some outdoor activities that only cement the fact that Greg is not the outdoorsy type. Except when it involves Holly, who he discovers is a member of the same country club as Rowley’s family. Greg, desperate to avoid accompanying his father to work as an unpaid summer intern, lies to his family about getting a job at the country club so that he has a reason to go hang around Rowley and Holly everyday. It’s a good plan, because Greg enters the club as Rowley’s invited guest – at first – but he would soon take on the identities of other club members to gain access. It’s only a matter of time before the charade is discovered and Greg has to deal with the repercussions. When it does occur it ties in nicely with Rowley’s own set of problems when his parents told him they were disappointed in him earlier in the summer.
The format of the DoaWK movies has relied on subplots and situations, not a straight narrative, to tell the story, much like the books themselves. Considering that the story is set during the summer, the misadventures involving Greg and Rowley makes sense. Kids are all about living in the moment and not worrying about tomorrow, so to see Greg make mistakes at the expense of himself and others is all a part of growing up.
A welcomed change this time around is seeing Greg’s parents, specifically father Frank, who had existed on the periphery in the previous movies, become a major part of the story. At its heart, Dog Days is about the struggle of having a father and son bond when the only interest they share is a distaste for a comic strip that neither find to be funny. Over the course of the summer, their relationship strengthens as the result of Greg’s bad deeds and his father’s growing sense of disappointment. Greg and Rowley also have a falling out, but as is the case with most kids of that age their friendship is mended quickly and all is right again.
The father-son bonding angle helps steer the movie away from simple slapstick to become a slice-of-life, almost reminiscent of the best episodes of The Wonder Years involving Kevin Arnold and his father Jack. While Dog Days teeters on being maudlin, the syrupiness is softened with comic high jinks that at one point involves honey, a string trap and a giant bag of ants. Though the best may come at the expense of Greg’s older brother, Roderick (Devon Bostick), and his band Loded Diper (yes, that’s how they spell “Loaded Diaper”) performing the Sweet Sixteen party for Holly’s self-important sister Heather. During the birthday party Roderick tries to impress her with a hard rock rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is fun while it lasted, and does something that few family films have done this year. It’s a movie about everyday kids. Seems so simple of an idea, but most of the family entertainment these days forgoes kids as the main characters and instead involves computer animation with celebrity voices. Dog Days has animation – two-dimensional stick figures – and is small in scale compared to most franchise pictures being released this summer (it only cost $22 million) but it has an endearing quality about it.
The books are about the punch lines and laughs author Jeff Kinney can elicit from readers. But the movies are more about the growth of a boy who is just trying to make it through childhood. And it is refreshing to see a kid who is far from mistake-free make the journey from child to teenager with the added importance of consequences and the value of his friends and family.
Director: David Bowers
Writer: Wallace Wolodarsky, Maya Forbes; Based on the books “The Last Straw” and “Dog Days” by Jeff Kinney
Notable Cast: Zachary Gordon, Steve Zahn, Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris, Peyton List