Judge Clark Douglas is a wimpy reviewer. He can rarely muster the courage to render an actual verdict.
Our review of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, published July 18th, 2010, is also available.
It's Not a Diary, it's a Movie!
Facts of the Case
It's the first day of middle school for Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, Four Christmases). Greg isn't too worried about this, despite the fact that his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick, Survival of the Dead) insists that Greg will be, "dead by the end of the year." After all, middle school is basically elementary school for older kids, right? Alas, Greg's new surroundings prove to be a minefield of complications, and climbing the social ladder seems particularly difficult. Greg's attempts to fit in aren't helped by the fact that his two best friends are the naïve Rowley (Robert Capron, Hachi: A Dog's Tale) and the extremely strange Fregley (Grayson Russell, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby). Over the course of the school year, Greg makes a stab at achieving popularity, fending off Rodrick's constant attacks and surviving the many perils of middle school.
I've never actually read any of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, but I was first made aware of their popularity a couple of years ago when I was inside a bookstore. I was looking to get a gift certificate for my niece, and I picked out one with a little pencil-drawn kid on it. "Wimpy Kid fan, huh?" the clerk said. "Excuse me?" I replied. "The Wimpy Kid series," the clerk repeated. "They're incredibly popular books; every kid of a certain age just loves them." She then pointed out a large bookshelf devoted entirely to Wimpy Kid books and paraphernalia. A short time later, I heard a story on NPR about, "The year's most popular graphic novel." Sure enough, it was one of the Wimpy Kid books, though its text-heavy nature make its qualifications as a graphic novel a bit questionable. Anyway, the series is popular, kids love it and it was bound to serve as the inspiration for a feature film.
Just from examining the six-page bonus story by Kinney that comes with this particular DVD, I can tell that the book series has a distinct tone and style. It's easy to see why kids would eat this stuff up. Considering that, it's too bad that the distinct series has been turned into a rather ordinary feature film. Despite constant bits of animation that replicate the art of the books, the film just can't rise above being another generic kids movie during its live-action portions. Yes, there are some amusing moments here and there, but Diary of a Wimpy Kid is essentially a collection of wacky situations fused with a generous dose of pre-adolescent angst.
The dynamic here is remarkably similar to the relationship of the kids in the splendid animated film Monster House. Greg is a small-ish, somewhat unpopular yet generally ordinary kid, his best friend is the goofy, chubby, funny guy, the girl they both hang out with is the one with all the practical common sense, and Greg's older sibling devotes himself to making Greg's life miserable (or so Greg feels, anyway). The thing is, that dynamic worked better in Monster House because the filmmakers devoted themselves to actually capturing the manner in which that particular dynamic works between kids of a certain age. Nuanced character development was given as much attention as the action. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the emphasis is on the crazy situations Greg and co. get into, leading to a series of unfortunate events that's basically a grade-school version of After Hours for the poor kid.
The interesting thing is that Greg actually deserves at least some of the considerable punishment the story deals him. He's a nice kid, but he makes some significant mistakes and isn't above betraying a friend or two to get what he wants. One particular betrayal would be enough to cause a permanent rift between two ordinary grade-schoolers, but the filmmakers wouldn't dream of concluding the film on such a dour note.
The film's most prominent running gag revolves around a piece of cheese sitting in the school parking lot. Apparently, this cheese has been here for quite some time. Once upon a time, a kid touched the cheese and was given the dreaded "cheese touch." The "cheese touch" was then passed around from person to person until it was finally given to a German exchange student and shipped overseas. We're told all of this because we know that someone (probably one of the main characters, and most probably Greg) will be given the cheese touch before the film concludes. It's one thing to tell the story in preparation of this inevitable third-act event, but do we really need two dozen shots of the cheese, continuously establishing its presence as a device to be employed later?
Diary of a Wimpy Kid receives a reasonably respectable 1080p AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer. There isn't really a problem with the actual transfer work done, but the filmmakers have shot the film in a surprisingly soft manner that doesn't lend itself to eye-popping detail. I suppose they were hoping to bring a look of warm nostalgia to the proceedings, but as a result both background detail and particularly facial detail suffer a good deal. Otherwise, there's a good deal of depth to the image. Also, there's a steady measure of grain present throughout. The audio is also perfectly acceptable while never really making a huge impression. There's slightly more complex sound design than usual for a film of this sort, but nothing genuinely remarkable. Theodore Shapiro's score is a bit more generic than usual for the composer, but is well-distributed.
Supplements include an audio commentary with director Thor Freudenthal and writer Gabe Sachs. It's a pleasant if somewhat bland track that covers the expected territory of behind-the-scenes info. Most of the other supplements can be found in the "deleted diary pages" section, which contains a series of super-brief featurettes (all 2 minutes or less) and some deleted scenes. Meh. If your Blu-ray player is BD-Live enabled, you can access a 4-minute interview with Jeff Kinney. In addition, this set comes with a DVD Copy, a Digital Copy and a slipcover that comes with a brand-new 6-page story by Kinney.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film's most noteworthy saving grace is the cast, as all of the actors contribute something of value to their roles. Russell and Capron in particular create very distinct characters, while Gordon and the up-and-coming Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) turn in assured performances. Steve Zahn (Treme) and Rachael Harris (Evan Almighty) are both excellent in their brief roles as Greg's parents, too.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good-natured but unfortunately recycled bit of family-friendly entertainment. Perhaps worth a rental for fans of the book; others should just give it a pass.
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