Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Where the Wimpy Kids Are: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: DOG DAYS

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is the third movie based on Jeff Kinney’s popular – and pretty good – series of comedic books for school kids. These movies (a loose trilogy now, I suppose) are basically a bright, family friendly, big-screen sitcom. A good deal of the fun this time around is indeed a type of sitcom pleasure, watching all the old characters show up again, spending more time with them in a comfortable, relaxed setting that allows them to grow while still retaining their familiar personalities. Protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), an obliviously selfish but mostly-well-meaning seventh-grader, clashes with parents and teachers, hangs out with friends, schemes to get out of work and into fun, and pines for the cute girl in his class. Same as it ever was.

But predictability is, in this case, not so bad. The tropes of the Wimpy Kids are familiar, but in a contented way. Greg is a sharp comedic distillation of early adolescent moods and each movie finds new scenarios in which to embarrass him. They’re relaxed films that alternate their gags between observation and gross-out humor, sometimes merging the two. Each time around, the episodic comedy setpieces gather around a roomy narrative throughline. In the first film, the focus is on Greg starting middle school, and in the second, his relationship with his older brother (Devon Bostick). This movie moves the action from the school year to summer vacation where the plot mostly circles around his attempts to get near class cutie Holly Hills (Peyton List) and avoid getting in trouble with his dad (Steve Zahn) who is on a mission to spend time with him.

Antics include sneaking into a country club, a trip to an amusement park, and a prank-filled camping weekend, among other typical summer vacation plot developments. Unlike the earlier films, the pacing feels a little off and the big laughs don’t roll around as frequently. So, it’s probably the worst of the three, but not by much. There are still plenty of chuckles and a likable mood. And what the series gets consistently, exactly right is capturing the feeling of early-adolescent angst. There’s a sense that Greg both desires close relationships with family, with friends, with girls, and yet has an acute anxiety about physical proximity.

Many of the jokes in Dog Days play off of this tension, this push and pull, whether he’s grossed out by the touchy-feely, sharing-is-caring family of his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), squeamish about walking through a community pool’s locker room, or overconfident that his Wii tennis skills will translate to the real thing. Other moments, when the film reaches for genuine sentiment, work just as well. The film’s last scene between Greg and his father is quiet, but so very satisfying and even just a little moving, as is the resolution of the plot between Greg and Holly.

Returning director David Bowers has an unassumingly nice way of staging these moments across the wide screen in a classical comedy way of simple, but precise blocking. This has the effect of helping moments like father and son trying to get a cut of meat away from a dog gain a kind of easy low-key slapstick charm. (The gross out scene that follows this moment is one of the funniest bits in the film.) Bowers also has a good way with actors, getting character actors like Zahn as the father and Rachael Harris as the mother to give charming performances as flawed but devoted parents. Bowers also trusts his young cast to carry much of the humor and gets some nice comedic work out of them. It’s a generous movie, giving funny moments to all involved.

Nonetheless, I’m a little disappointed with this installment. It all feels just a little past its sell-by date, often unable to find the right level of energy and novelty to animate many of its more tired summer vacation plot points. But I still really like the approach of these films and got a fair amount of laughs out of this one anyways. I just plain enjoyed spending time with these characters on new misadventures while I still can. The kids in the cast have probably just about aged out of the series. This time around heights are rising and voices are dropping, so I’d guess it ends here, especially with end credits that place pictures, one from each movie, next to each characters’ names. I wish the series could have ended on a stronger note, but it’s still been a nice run.

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