Are the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movies among the least auspicious ever to reach the Run The Series minimum of four installments? Even the Chipmunks, the standard-bearers of film franchises that embrace their audience limitations, actually have some monster hits to their name. Poor, dimwitted Greg Heffley, the Kevin Arnold-esque hero of Jeff Kinney’s beloved middle-grade book series, lacks even the charisma of a caterwauling rodent; Kinney’s keen eye for the insecurities and myriad failings of the barely adolescent male have made Heffley relatable on the page and mostly insufferable on the screen. No wonder he’s already been rebooted twice: first softly, replacing aging child actors with younger ones; and now more decisively, starting over by translating Kinney’s world into animation.
It’s a short journey. The books are essentially graphic novels with a newspaper-strip sensibility, and the live-action movies struggled with how to balance some funny, cartoonish sight gags with the low-rent grubbiness of flesh-and-blood tween antics. (They included little bits of animation in the books’ 2D style.) Going all the way to animation makes sense, and helps mitigate the problems of spending additional cinematic time with Greg Heffley. With the potential for child-actor smarm removed from the equation, Heffley (Brady Noon) actually becomes more likably hapless. He’s still a conniving and craven little bastard—he would have to be, as this new version includes material covered by the first live-action movie, adapted this time by Kinney himself—but animation draws out his Charlie Browniest qualities.
That also includes his swollen, bald head—signaling that there are also some drawbacks to watching Diary Of A Wimpy Kid’s middle-school embarrassments play out in cartoon form. While director Swinton Scott has experience bringing a cartoonist’s sensibility to life (he’s directed episodes of multiple Matt Groening shows), he doesn’t seem to have been afforded the budget or the time to create a pleasing computer-animated version of Kinney’s stick-drawing style. Instead, the 3D renderings mostly look out of whack, like no one bothered to figure out the relative sizes and scales of the characters’ bodies.
Maybe a better movie could bend these inconsistent grotesqueries into commentary on the horrors of the adolescent body. This is a story about the uncomfortable transition from elementary school to middle school, after all. But that’s not really fair to Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, because it seems questionable whether this was really intended as a movie in the first place. News of a Diary reboot first surfaced in 2018, when it was described as an animated TV show. It arrives on Disney+ as the rare feature film that doesn’t clear the 60-minute mark, more akin to the extended specials that long-running kids’ TV series will sometimes brand as “movie events.”
On that level, the new version of Wimpy Kid has its moments. It bounces between vignettes, some amusing and some choppily edited, testing the mettle of Heffley and his optimistic best pal Rowley (Ethan William Childress), perhaps Kinney’s most durable creation. Greg’s desire for acceptance and popularity is threatened at every turn, and endangers his friendship with the endearingly uncool Rowley. The boys notch some impressively Peanuts-like defeats as they try to make sense of shifting social mores. Greg, as ever, is the more self-conscious one, chilled to the bone when his bestie doesn’t realize that middle-schoolers are supposed to “hang out,” not “play.”
Even more than their live-action counterparts, though, these middle-schoolers seem squarely aimed at an audience that can still treat the years beyond elementary education as a distant abstraction. Meanwhile, parents and guardians of a certain age may pass the time idly wondering if Scott is paying tribute to his Simpsons roots with a trio of teenage miscreants who bear a passing resemblance to the immortal Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney. Even if their minds wander, most grown-ups probably won’t be as bored as the actors playing Heffley’s parents sound; they both give oddly flat and colorless vocal performances. It’s these hints of indifference that make Diary Of A Wimpy Kid feel like a contractual obligation, or a cobbling together of streaming content, rather than the start of a new series.