Until the dread day when CGI replaces actors outright, there will be dilemmas like the one that faced makers of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” features: After three films adapted from Jeff Kinney’s hugely popular books, the juvenile thespians aged out of their roles. There’s been some fan grumbling about their unfortunate if inevitable replacement in “The Long Haul,” which reboots the series after a five-year layoff. But the entirely new cast steps in seamlessly — in some instances they might actually be improved models — and returning producer-director David Bowers, this time sharing screenplay credit with Kinney himself, delivers an amiable, fast-paced entry that should win over fans.
The ninth volume so far (No. 12 is due this fall), “Long Haul” isn’t necessarily among the best, but it provides the Heffley family with various changes of scenery that sufficiently differentiate this latest screen installment from its predecessors. The efficiently engineered script also lifts incidents from other “Wimpy Kids” books, notably the addition of running plot threads involving popular ubernerd-gamer personality Mac Digby (Joshua Hoover) and a viral online humiliation for 12-year-old protagonist Greg (Jason Drucker).
It’s mom Susan (Alicia Silverstone) who hatches the bright idea to road-trip it to grandma’s 90th birthday celebration, a decision not joyfully received by anyone else — certainly not Greg, his eternally tormenting older sibling Rodrick (Charlie Wright), or even dad Frank (Tom Everett Scott), who’s had to sneak a few days off from his job during a crunch period. (Too young to care one way or the other is toddler Manny, played here by twins Dylan and Wyatt Walters.) Nor does mom lighten the mood by insisting that for the sake of “family time” this sojourn will be “unplugged,” with all cellphones, laptops, gameboys et al. confiscated — though the menfolk soon find ways to secretly circumvent that rule.
After an initial setpiece at a Chuck E. Cheese-type restaurant, the Heffreys hit the highway. Travel mishaps come hard and fast, including a night at a decrepit motel where Greg first runs afoul of a nasty “rival” nuclear unit (led by Chris Coppola as belligerent “Mr. Beardo”), the inconvenient winning of a pet piglet at a county fair and the older boys’ unauthorized detour to a gaming expo.
While some of the humor is of a lowbrow peepee/caca type that will have most adults rolling their eyes, there are bits everyone will enjoy, notably a clever “I Confess” car game that Greg uses to give prankster Rodrick a taste of his own medicine. The slapstick highlight is a moving-vehicle disaster involving hungry seagulls, a broken sunroof and a whole lot of Cheetohs.
These movies don’t fully capture the charm of the books — in particular Kinney’s delightful line drawings, though once again the latter are animated here in brief sequences. (Bower, who himself graduated from toons to live action and has directed all “Wimpy” films since Thor Freudenthal’s 2010 kickoff, purportedly first thought of making this installment fully animated — an idea that would still be welcome for future “Diary” entries.) But they’re lively, polished and good-natured as family entertainment goes.
The new actors bear close-enough physical resemblances to their predecessors, apart perhaps from Silverstone, who is a bit sitcomishly effortful. (But then, Susan’s function is basically that of killjoy.) More importantly, they slip into their characters with seemingly practiced ease. Loyalists who particularly squawked at losing Devon Bostick’s Rodrick will be hard-pressed to deny that Wright is a more-than-worthy replacement, and though no one ever relished saying goodbye to the estimable Steve Zahn, Scott is also a particularly good fit in Frank’s shoes.
Shot in and around Atlanta, the production follows the earlier films’ blueprint in its competent if uninspired packaging, including rote use of pop songs (by Green Day, Bruno Mars, etc.) to bump up the soundtrack’s energy level.