An appealing, if glossy, adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s hugely popular cartoon-illustrated novel, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is an amusing romp through the awkward years of middle school. As told from the perspective of its 11-year-old narrator, it’s a spry, fluffy comedy that, given Kinney’s track record — the five-book “Wimpy Kid” series has sold 28 million copies to date — should have no trouble drawing young viewers.
Initiated as a series of online cartoons, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” made a big splash upon its 2007 publication as a “novel in cartoons,” and its universal Everykid premise went on to spawn vigorous Internet fan activity. Eponymous hero Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, faintly recalling the young Fred Savage) is like an anti-Harry Potter: He has no magic or any other discernible powers, and his best asset is a sardonic take on middle school: “Let me just say that I think (it’s) the dumbest idea ever invented,” he writes. “You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.”
Helmer Thor Freudenthal (“Hotel for Dogs”) wastes no time establishing Greg’s world: He’s routinely hazed by his older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), humiliated by his little brother, Manny (played by Connor and Owen Fielding), and often overlooked altogether by his parents (Rachael Harris, Steve Zahn). His best friend is the doughy, decidedly uncool Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron).
In a hilarious though highly sitcomish introductory sequence that sets the pic’s tone, Rodrick tricks Greg into waking up in the middle of the night, insisting he’s going to be late for his first day at his new school. From there, things don’t get much better. Middle school is a land of ritual humiliations, from the physical terrors of a routine gym class to the rejections suffered during lunch, as Greg, Rowley and their nerdy pal Fregley (Grayson Russell) are relegated to the cafeteria floor. Nothing, however, is quite as terrifying as the prospect of touching “the cheese” — a stinky slice of Swiss cheese that has laid on the playground asphalt for months and ripened into a stomach-churning shade of bluish yellow. Anyone who touches it, one boy reports, may unleash “nuclear cooties” on the school.
Working from a script credited to Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, Freudenthal moves briskly through the various vignettes, at once entertaining and painful. In the book, Greg’s wry observations were explicated with sparse black-and-white cartoons. Here, Kinney’s original drawings are likewise interspersed alongside the stream-of-consciousness musings of their narrator. Greg’s stated goal of becoming a yearbook “class favorite” appears just as unlikely as a rise in his popularity ranking — amusingly detailed in Kinney’s accompanying sketches.
As designed by Brent Thomas and lensed by Jack Green, Greg’s environment is a world of shiny surfaces, sun-dappled trees and heightened colors. There’s little about this milieu that feels truly authentic, which is notable, given Sach and Judah’s writing credit on “Freaks and Geeks.” That show and the work of the late John Hughes remain the highwater marks for any take on adolescent angst; given what the genre can accomplish, then, it’s a bit of a shame that “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” keeps things so simple and superficial. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable ride — albeit one infused with enough gross-out moments to make you feel relieved you’ve left middle school far behind.