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Worth Your Time? The Diary of the Wimpy Kid movies — better than you remember

By Nicholas Cervania, June 1, 2021—

To say that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series of books was instrumental for most people growing up in this generation is a bit of an understatement. The first book was published in 2007 and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t at least heard of this series. 

In 2010, the first movie adaptation of the book series was released. I actually remember not liking these movies when I was younger — writing them off because they weren’t accurate enough to the books. But in retrospect, that’s a pretty unfair reason to invalidate these movies. You can view and appreciate both the books and the movies separately as their own entities and find different types of enjoyment out of them.

The original trilogy has been a guilty pleasure of mine for a while and in this article I’ll rank and review all of the movies from worst to best.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

Spoof video of a scene from Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules // Video courtesy of YouTube

I firmly believe that the original trilogy aged like wine and that this movie aged like milk.

I don’t think a lot of people are surprised by the ranking of this movie, but it is technically part of the series so I have to include it. This movie received a lot of backlash and negative reception when the first trailer was released, especially due to the recasting of the main characters. But, this casting change led to a much deeper problem that this film suffers from. 

In the original trilogy, the original cast spent a lot of time together before filming started to get comfortable around each other, and this can be seen from their performances. All of the actors feel cohesive with one another. Acting and reacting to each other happens naturally — much like the way it would in a real family. In this movie, it feels like the casting director pulled a bunch of random people off the street and stuck them in a room together. Nobody in the new cast has any kind of chemistry with one another and we don’t get to see them play off each other in interesting ways. It also doesn’t help that the main cast in this movie lacks the natural charisma that the original cast had used to carry these movies. 

The biggest problem that this movie faces however is that it isn’t able to recontextualize the events of the books into a way that makes the story better — something that every other movie in this series does exceptionally well.

This series, including the books, was remarkable for its relatability with its target audience. The main character, Greg, is a basic everyman — anything that happens to him could happen to you or me. This helps make the stories more approachable and empathetic. It’s also the reason why people fell in love with this series and I don’t think that this movie gets that. 

The plot of this film is pretty outlandish. The movie starts with Greg becoming a viral internet meme. He then decides to use his family’s road trip vacation as an excuse to visit a gaming convention to meet his favourite streamer and gain popularity and the movie ends with him jumping a boat into his great grandmother’s pool. These over-the-top and outrageous plot points warp the film’s tone and transform it from a grounded and engaging coming-of-age story into a childish and low-effort cash-grab kid adventure.

I also hate it when movies portray youth as hyperactive, screen-addicted goblins and I think it’s the laziest way to write anyone under the age of twenty-five. Every character in this movie that isn’t an adult is a hyperactive, screen-addicted one-dimensional character.

Another issue I have with this movie is with Greg himself. The Greg in this movie doesn’t feel right. 

Greg is a character who is extremely selfish and conceited. He’s lazy and is always looking for the easiest way out of any situation. He also often finds ways to make up excuses to either get out of work or manipulate other people into doing what he wants. In the other movies, he’s kind of a terrible person but in those circumstances, it often just comes across as him being young, naive and immature. To keep us engaged with the story, we don’t really need to agree with his actions, we just need to understand his motivations. This is because most of the humour in this series is sourced from the egotistical and often unethical methods Greg employs to solve his problems. The previous movies did a really good job of portraying that. In this movie, his actions just aren’t justified well enough, and as such, his methods can often come across as almost sinister. He no longer feels like the juvenile yet sympathizable child that we’ve grown to know him as and instead feels more like a dim-witted sociopath. His character in this movie is too drastic of a departure from the Greg we see in the books and other movies, and this change makes his character and the story worse. Along with the lack of charisma that these actors have, the distinct lack of proper motivation makes most of the comedic moments in this movie fall flat.

This is probably the worst way this movie series could have gone out. This movie fails on almost every level — from its characters, to the story and the performances. The only redeeming quality that this movie has is that the musical score is mildly passable.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Photo of dialogue from Diary of a Wimpy Kid // courtesy listal.

The first movie in this franchise is very clearly the weakest entry out of the original trilogy. But that’s not to say that it’s bad — like I said before, the original trilogy holds up well. This movie sets the standard for the two movies that follow and as such, all of the other movies in the trilogy share the same strengths.

One of my favourite aspects of this film is the musical score. All three movies in the original trilogy have the same melody present in their overture with each song perfectly encapsulating the spirit of childhood. This melody is excellently used to frame each scene.

Another aspect that this movie trilogy succeeds in is the visuals. This movie was shot on film instead of digitally, and as such, it stands out among other movies that came out around the same time.

This movie focuses on Greg making his way through his first year of middle school with his best friend Rowley and his attempt to be the most popular kid in school. 

As I mentioned before, the original trilogy of movies excels at recontextualizing the events of the books to create a stronger narrative. For example, like I mentioned earlier, Greg is a desperately selfish and conceited lazy person. The movie uses this to its advantage, using these faults to create tension with Rowley, ultimately culminating with Rowley confronting Greg about his behaviour and cutting ties with him. This is an emotional moment and it’s one that didn’t exist in the source material at all.

In the original books, Greg never has any sort of arc or development as a character. The series is currently on its 15th entry and Greg is still very much the same character as he was in the first book. He’s still very conceited, self-centered and lazy, thinking success will come naturally to him without having to work for it. Most of the time, Greg takes a very passive role in his stories and never goes out of his way to affect the plot.

In this movie, Greg develops through his relationships with the people around him, which is a theme that follows this original trilogy of films. This movie focuses on his relationship with Rowley and how Greg learns the importance of letting go of his ego. He begins the movie thinking that popularity in middle school is a life-defining characteristic and is desperately concerned with his public image. This is a great character to pair with Rowley, a kid who is really good at being himself. Every plot point and action taken by Greg is used to develop the relationship between the two, often negatively, with Greg usually belittling or using Rowley for his own personal gain.

For example, one of the sequences in the movie is based around Greg trying to “fix” Rowley. During this, he throws away his clothes, belittles his interests and essentially tries to rewrite his entire personality. As the movie goes on however, Greg’s actions become less and less excusable. He breaks Rowley’s hand, makes fun of his cartoons and gets him suspended from the safety patrol. Rowley cuts his ties with Greg because his latest mistake is one among many in a laundry list of betrayals that has no signs of slowing down.

In the end though, Greg decides to reject his preconceived notions on the importance of popularity and sacrifices his social standing in order to protect his friend. This act of kindness shows his growth and acceptance of his best friend, and he and Rowley become friends once again.

While the movie’s ending wraps up the plot nicely, I don’t think the film overall effectively portrays its moral about how overrated it is to be liked and accepted by your peers. This is especially apparent with Angie (Chloë Grace Moretz), an entirely original character to the films who is never seen ever again after this movie. Her role in the story is to blatantly spell out the theme of the movie and I find it comes across as pretty hamfisted and direct. Plus, the theme of “being yourself,” and “not defining yourself by what others think of you,” is pretty overdone and isn’t anything unique to a kid’s movie. The movie isn’t trying to portray anything more complex than that. Furthermore, the movie is guilty of over-romanticizing middle school in service of making this theme more apparent and it comes across as over-indulgent and excessive.

Another minor issue I have with this movie is performances. Being the first film in the series, the actors still take a bit to grow into their roles. The child actors especially are a little stiff and don’t exactly feel comfortable in their roles yet. But overall, this movie serves as a great introduction to the characters and does a good job of setting up a trilogy.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

(L-R): Zachary Gordon (Greg Heffley) and Steve Zahn (Frank Heffley) // courtesy imdb.

Dog Days succeeds over the first movie by having the strongest performances out of the original trilogy. All the actors feel like they’ve grown into their characters. Everyone is comfortable with the wacky, over-the-top comedic scenes while still being able to feel like grounded and fully thought-out people. 

Steve Zahn stands out especially as Greg’s father. He’s perfect at balancing the stern patriarchal figure for his family with his goofy quirks and insecurities. He’s a real person with real motivations and flaws, and with the relationship between Greg and his father as the main focus of the film, it’s critical that he feels like a complete character.

In this movie, Greg’s father makes it his goal to be a greater presence in his son’s life than his own father was in his, which again, is an engaging concept that wasn’t in the original books. But this creates tension, as his well-intentioned efforts often make him come off as overbearing. As a result of these new efforts, Greg seems to disappoint his father at every turn. He’s not athletic enough, he screws up the civil war reenactment that his dad brings him to and he lies about actually having a job. Through this discourse, however, Greg learns that it’s okay to make mistakes, but what’s important is that you take responsibility and learn from them.

The problem with this movie however is that it’s bogged down by a lot of subplots that distract from the relationship between Greg and his father. The subplots about Rodrick’s band or Greg’s romance with Holly are funny enough but they don’t relate to the movie’s theme or to the relationship between Greg and his father, which is the most important aspect of the film.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

(L-R): Zachary Gordon (Greg Heffley) and Devon Bostick (Rodrick Heffley) // courtesy imdb.

I had a hard time deciding between Dog Days and this one for the number-one spot. Ultimately, I think Rodrick Rules does a better job at encapsulating what it is I love about these films. 

This movie is a big improvement over the first film. The directing and the humour are both much better and the story is a lot more streamlined by focusing more on Greg’s family and love interests rather than his school life.

In this movie, Greg’s mom is concerned with Greg and Rodrick’s antagonism towards each other and incentivizes them to spend more time together. As the two grow closer, Greg learns that Rodrick isn’t as ignorant as he seems and the two gain a mutual respect for one another. Greg also attempts to bond with his new love interest, Holly Hills (Peyton List), who he eventually confides in Rodrick about. 

The movie opens up with conflict between Greg and Rodrick and appropriately enough it ends with them together, having reconciled and grown a brotherly bond. Their relationship is the clear focus of the film and its presence is strongly felt in nearly every plot point of the story.

Take, for example, the sequence where Rodrick throws a party and locks Greg in the basement. In the books, Greg was locked down in the basement for the entire night, but in this movie Greg finds a way to trick Rodrick into letting him out. As a result, the party ends up becoming a source of bonding for Rodrick and Greg — it becomes a secret that they both can hide together and that makes their relationship a lot stronger. This is another way that the movies improve on the events of the books.

The importance of Greg and Rodrick’s relationship is also emphasized by the inclusion of Bill — a loser “rockstar” who Rodrick tries to recruit for his band. Bill represents what Rodrick — and eventually, Greg — could become if they lacked the positive qualities that they gain from their family. Rodrick’s loyalty, his empathy and streetwise-knowledge all set him apart from Bill. After the events of the movie we see that Rodrick would never run the risk of becoming Bill because he has people that care enough about him to keep him in line.

Furthermore, we also see that Greg won’t end up like Rodrick either. Rodrick is mostly a negative role model for Greg and every time Greg tries to emulate Rodrick’s behaviour by reusing his assignments, lying to his parents or pulling pranks on strangers, he suffers for it. But, Greg also learns that Rodrick is smarter than he lets on, being able to use his naivety to get out of work he doesn’t want to do. Greg learns that he doesn’t need to be exactly like his brother to get along with him. He learns to take the good with the bad — something that’s an important part of being a family.

When Greg and Rodrick’s relationship is at its strongest, it comes crumbling down once their parents find out about the party. Rodrick’s line, “You’re my brother, but you’ll never be my friend,” sticks out as one of the most cathartic lines in the whole film trilogy. This shift is significant because we’ve been building up this relationship for most of the movie. We’ve seen Rodrick and Greg at their worst with each other, we know how much time and effort it took for them to bond and now it’s been completely torn apart. In addition, when their parents forbid Rodrick from playing in the talent show, Devon Bostick puts on a surprisingly tender and heartbreaking performance as Rodrick that completely steals the show.

In the final act of the movie, Greg decides to make a sacrifice for his brother. He agrees to be part of Rowley’s magic act in exchange for his mom’s permission for Rodrick to perform — an act Greg wanted to avoid so that he could look good in front of Holly. With this, we get to see the full extent of the growth of his character. Over the course of the film, Greg has been building up his relationships with both Rodrick and Holly, and he’s willing to sacrifice the latter for his brother’s happiness. In the end, this works in his favour, as his performance ends up impressing Holly and leads to his reconciliation with Rodrick.

Another thing this movie does well is successfully setting up an ensemble cast for the franchise. Chirag, Holly, Patty and Fregley were very minor characters that were pretty quickly forgotten about in the books, but here they have a real narrative presence. It makes the world feel a lot more realized and engaging.

From the original trilogy, Rodrick Rules was the movie that left the strongest and most lasting impression on me and is the film that perfectly encapsulates in my mind what these movies represent.

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