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Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid as Good As the Book?

We are not a Wimpy Kid family (we are a Junie B. Jones family), but maybe we will become a Wimpy Kid family. I hope not.

Up until last night, my 8-year-old daughter had shown zero interest in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the graphic novel series by Jeff Kinney. But after being dragged to the press screening, Phoebe (a.k.a. my handy movie critic’s personal canary in a coal mine) rushed home to pick up the book and point out the memorable scenes – especially the gross parts.

If your child is all about Wimpy Kid, then a negative review is not about to change your weekend plans. As I hear it, scores of boys (and girls too) have experienced a bit of the Harry Potter effect with the Wimpy Kid series; so-called “reluctant readers” are devouring these stories about a hapless 6th-grade boy facing the slings and arrows of mortifying middle school.

Unfortunately, there’s more personality in the book’s stick figures than there is in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the movie. The simple cartoons (sort of derivative of Matt Groening) appear throughout the diary, printed in a “handwritten” font on lined pages. It creates a kid-produced aesthetic that is pretty much lost in director Thor Freudenthal’s((Hotel for Dogs) generic, live-action Hollywood translation.

The movie features all the usual stock characters – the bitchy stuck- up rich girl; the repellent, bespectacled snot-eater; the mean older brother; bullies and popular kids. Maybe all these kids are there in middle school, being mean and petty and talking about “hot girls” and “cute butts,” problem is, it’s second-graders who are reading about the travails of Greg Heffley, 6th grade loser – just like six- and seven-year-olds are really into High School Musical (which is sooo last year for my canary.)

During the movie I sat there thinking, “Oh, please don’t teach Phoebe the word ‘moron.” And please, please, please don’t have Phoebe ask me about the porn magazine that Greg’s big brother is hiding under his bed. I am not a prude. I just can’t handle that conversation yet.

Nor am I one of those “age-appropriate” obsessed parents. Phoebe watched Woody Allen’s Sleeper (it’s slapstick!) at age 7 and West Side Story (stabbings, yes, but beautifully choreographed stabbings) at 5. So maybe it wasn’t Diary’s blueprint for tween cruelty that made me wince, maybe it was its unmitigated mediocrity.

I’m not a super-fastidious mom. I always rolled by eyes at the parents who thought Junie B. Jones was a bad role model or that her vernacular re-enforced poor grammar. To me, funny trumps correct. Junie B. Jones is hysterical. She’s a quirky and endearing kid, but Greg Heffley is an utterly generic kid. Some parents don’t like him because he’s kind of a jerk; I don’t like him because he isn’t especially funny or distinctive. (That said, Zachary Gordon is an adorable actor – it’s not his fault that the movie is blah.)

Even Rachael Harris (the priceless ball-buster from The Hangover) plays a pretty bland mom to Steve Zahn’s unoriginal dad. The film’s only real moment is when Greg’s immature best friend, Rowley, realizes Greg is not a good friend. It’s one of the only times the film doesn’t strain for laughs. Robert Capron (Rowley) is sweetly chubby and kind of clueless. He’s a good sport who tags along with Greg on his social-climbing schemes. Rowley’s character is refreshingly specific, so even though he brings in the ‘staying true to himself’ Big Message, it’s not irritatingly moralistic.

But it’s not the redeeming moral and the lessons learned (or even the glimpse of the big kid world) that Phoebe was talking about when we left the theater. She liked the part when Greg accidentally pees on his older brother who has jumped out of the shower to scare him. I liked that too. And thankfully, the porn magazine scene went over her head.

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