The "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" franchise, adapted from Jeff Kinney's illustrated books, has carved out a niche: It's the only current movie series about an everyday kid living an everyday life. Greg Heffley, the flawed but sympathetic hero, may occasionally wish for a wizard's wand to solve his problem, but in the end the job falls to him. Old-fashioned and small in scale, the movies sometimes feel like after-school specials from a bygone era, which is part of what makes them so endearing.
The third and newest entry, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days," combines two of Kinney's books into one loose collection of story lines. During the summer after seventh grade, Greg (Zachary Gordon) begins sneaking into a country club to get closer to pretty Holly Hills (Peyton List). To prevent his parents from sending him to a punitive boarding school, Greg pretends to get a summer job. And to keep that lie going, Greg does whatever his blackmailing teenage brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), demands.
The overstuffed script, while mostly funny and engaging, buries some of the franchise's best assets, particularly Robert Capron, who stole the first movie as Greg's gooey-hearted friend Rowley, and Bostick, who shined in the second as a sneering punk with a soft side. "Dog Days" ostensibly focuses on Greg's strained relationship with his father, Frank (Steve Zahn), but the two share only one or two meaningful moments.
The biggest disappointment in "Dog Days" is the character of Holly Hills, an innocuous trophy girl whose best qualities seem to be a pretty smile and the name of a future Playmate. That's a message the "Wimpy Kid" movies don't need to send. But Greg remains a refreshingly average hero, a boy trying not to save the world but simply make it through childhood.
PLOT Seventh grade is over, but Greg Heffley's summer will be no vacation. RATING PG (mildly crude humor)
CAST Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Peyton List
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE The third "Wimpy Kid" movie is the series' weakest, but it still has a good heart, some funny moments and genuine respect for its characters.
Making 'Wimpy Kid' softer on screen
In adapting Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books for the screen, the filmmakers have sanded down some of lead character Greg Heffley's rougher edges, in part because what he says or does to the two-dimensional stick figures around him in a book plays more harshly when he's doing those things to a living person on screen.
"There are things you can get away with on the printed page that are funny that you can't get away with on screen," said Kinney, who left the screenwriting on "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" to Maya Forbes, Gabe Sachs and Wallace Wolodarsky, but consulted with the filmmakers on all three films. "I think he's much more subversive in the books than in the movies."
At the same time, Greg (played by Zachary Gordon) learns from his cinematic mistakes, something that doesn't necessarily happen in the books.
"You've got an imperfect character, and you're trying to make him likable. In a movie, you have to see growth, because the audience expects it," Kinney said of how Greg changes on screen. "They are looking for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, and my books are nihilistic in that way. I'm not looking for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I'm looking to get a joke on every page."
-- Los Angeles Times