Just how much abuse can one kid take? Middle-schooler Greg Heffley is about to find out in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” the serviceable third installment in the franchise adapted from Jeff Kinney’s bestselling books. Formulaic in adhering to the sitcom-style tone of the first two films, pic finds the chronically underappreciated Greg (Zachary Gordon) facing a summer break replete with parental expectations and anxiety over his first crush. Result should, like its predecessors, satisfy “Wimpy Kid” fans, but a bigger problem — what to do when your young actors grow faster than your characters? — lies ahead for Fox.
Kinney’s seven “Wimpy Kid” books have become essential reading for disenfranchised tweens everywhere; certainly no one these days has had greater success exploring the indignities of adolescence. It was Kinney’s first book, published in 2003, that coined the enduring catchphrase “cheese touch,” a shorthand gross-out “you’re it” now deployed on playgrounds from coast to coast.
With a cast and crew culled from the first two pics, this third film has accelerated the timeline by blending elements from Kinney’s third and fourth books (“The Last Straw” and “Dog Days”.) With the author in place as exec producer overseeing a script by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, the compression is seamlessly handled. As usual, Gordon’s reliably sardonic narration and Kinney’s occasional onscreen animation lend the proceedings some context.
In the waning days of seventh grade, Greg announces his plans for summer vacation: to play a lot of videogames and woo the lovely Holly (Peyton List). But his parents, Frank and Susan (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris), insist he should be more productive. So when Greg’s best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), invites him to the country club where Holly teaches tennis, Greg opts to pose as an employee there. Mom and Dad seem pleased with his newly industrious streak (and Holly might just think he’s cute), but it’s just a matter of time before Greg accidentally blows his own cover.
It doesn’t help that Greg brags about his prowess with a racquet, but he’s mortified to learn that playing Wii Tennis isn’t the same as the real thing. Luckily, Holly is the understanding type, but there’s plenty more humiliation ahead as Greg seeks other ways to impress her: Struck with fear atop the high dive, Greg soon finds he’s in way over his head — and soon, somehow, swimming without his trunks.
Of course, Greg hails from a ridiculously dysfunctional family, so his parents can’t be too hard on him. Much of the humor in “Dog Days” springs from the screwball dynamics among the three Heffley boys — Greg is stuck between teenager Rodrick (Devon Bostick) and toddler Manny (Connor and Owen Fielding) — and Dad’s misguided attempts to manage the chaos. When the family’s new dog mistakes little Manny’s blanket for a chew toy, Greg tries to distract him with the pot roast Mom had broiled for dinner, inspiring a hilarious, if predictably icky, turn of events.
In a last-ditch attempt to cement their bond and to redress his own adolescent failings, Frank decides to enroll Greg in a father-son wilderness explorers camp. The final reel ups the gross-out ante, but kids will enjoy the pratfalls and the ever-so-slight possibility of Greg’s vindication. Parents will value the fact that there are a few lessons administered throughout, while the younger set will appreciate that those lessons are not at all preachy.
Tech package is adequate but, like David Bowers’ direction, rarely rises above standard sitcom fare; Vancouver stands in for U.S. locations as it did in the first two films. Obviously, there’s a formula in place: Working with the veteran “Wimpy Kid” cast and crew allows for a faster shoot, a presumably tighter budget and fewer surprises along the way, and as usual, the adult cast — comedians Zahn and Harris in particular — are reliably game.
But kid thesps can only stay young for so long; though Gordon is still appealing, his voice has deepened and his features have started to mature. That said, Greg Heffley’s struggles are universal, so at least for now, his fans ought not to object.