[Screen It]

(2010) (Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron) (PG)

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Comedy: A preteen boy tries to make a name for himself while maneuvering through the preadolescent social minefield that is middle school.
Greg Heffley (ZACHARY GORDON) is a normal kid, if a bit small for his size, who's about to enter middle school. He lives with his parents, Susan (RACHEL HARRIS) and Frank (STEVE ZAHN), preschool brother Manny (CONNOR FIELDING), and high school sibling Rodrick (DEVON BOSTICK). The latter informs Greg that he should lay low and not making any waves at school in order to survive, but there's a problem with that plan and his name is Rowley Jefferson (ROBERT CAPRON).

He's Greg's best friend, but while Greg recognizes middle school as the social minefield that it is, Rowley is content with being himself and still acting like a younger kid. Despite his brother's advice and that of school rebel Angie Steadman (CHLOE MORETZ) who writes for the Westmore Middle School paper, Greg is intent on moving up the social ladder and individual popularity rankings however he can, hoping to stay far away from the nerdy kid at the bottom, Fregley (GRAYSON RUSSELL).

While trying his hand at being on the wrestling team, a member of the safety patrol, auditioning for the school play and more -- all while having to deal with both classmate Patty (LAINE MacNEIL) who has a longstanding axe to grind with him, and some high school bullies who occasionally pop up -- Greg does what he can to make a name for himself. But his quest repeatedly ends up backfiring more than succeeding, eventually putting his friendship with Rowley in jeopardy.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While all sorts of issues ranging from gender to race, financial standing and more can separate people into different social strata, few are as sudden and/or unfair as puberty. One minute you're a kid like everyone else and suddenly you're left behind as boys sprout inches, facial hair and deeper voices, while girls suddenly have curves, develop womanly faces and attract boys. Although it's not always the case, those who start maturing earlier are often the ones who become popular in school, while those still waiting for the change are left behind to fend for themselves in quickly stratifying social circles.

Since attending middle school happens right around the same time, it can be perplexing, irritating and/or depressing to those behind the curve (or curves as it may be) as they struggle to keep up and fit in. That's the underlying premise of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," a fairly entertaining, often imaginative and sometimes downright funny look at those years of wonder.

In fact, it shares something of a similarity to the TV drama "The Wonder Years" from back in the 1980s and '90s that featured a number of kids similarly starting middle school, with the narrator (Daniel Stern) looking back at those days through adult hindsight. Although it touched on some of the same issues facing kids of that transformational age group, the series was far more dramatic than its later day brethren that's far more interested in being goofy than solemn.

Of course, the true and somewhat bittersweet silliness of "Wimpy Kid" won't come as a surprise to the millions of fans who've put the first and subsequent entries of writer Jeff Kinney's illustrated kid series on best seller lists for several years now. As a general disclaimer, I haven't read any of them, but if they're as entertaining and cute as the filmed adaptation of the original entry, I can clearly understand their popularity.

Director Thor Freudenthal ("Hotel for Dogs") -- working from a script by Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Jeff Judah and Gabe Sachs -- keeps things moving at a lively pace, occasionally interjecting comical flashbacks and at least one flash forward into the main plot that consists of the protagonist (Zachary Gordon) trying to ascend the ladder of social popularity at his new school.

Considering the target audience of like-aged kids, it's no surprise that gross-out (if benign) and juvenile material is present. Yet, there are enough slightly subversive and observational bits to keep older kids and even adults entertained. If there's one significant complaint, however, and I have no idea if the book suffers from the same, it's that there really isn't a great deal of actual A to Z plot, and what is present is fairly episodic in nature.

Beyond touching on an assortment of issues one might find in a similarly structured show on Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel (including dealing with older siblings, bullies and eventually learning the important concluding lesson regarding friendship), we're presented with a series of fragmented sequences where Greg Heffley tries one thing after another in his popularity quest.

To no one's surprise -- at least to those who've seen this sort of thing before and/or are old enough to have experienced it themselves -- most of those efforts backfire, and instead send him sliding and bouncing down those all-important rungs. There's the sequence where he tries out for the wrestling team and later the school musical, only to be bested by an intense girl who has a longstanding axe to grind with him. Attempts at the safety patrol, replacing the school paper cartoonist, faking an arm injury and more similarly fail to work, but do inadvertently boost the popularity of his best friend (Robert Capron), much to his comically perturbed chagrin.

The best recurring bit, however, features an inanimate but highly influential object -- a moldy piece of cheese that's been out on the playground blacktop for months. In standard gullible kid group mind-think, the flat dairy product is supposedly cursed, and a humorous flashback sequence shows the consequence of coming into direct contact with it. Such moments, and there are plenty scattered throughout the production, are the highlights of the film, and one can't help but wish the clever and sometimes wicked sense of humor that fuels them was present throughout.

Performances are generally in line with what one would expect from a film like this. Gordon is decent and appealing enough as the protagonist, but Capron is better as his seemingly socially embarrassing best friend. Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn don't get much material with which to work but fit the bill, while Devon Bostick gets some funny moments as the older brother who tries to pass on his wisdom to his younger sibling when not otherwise tormenting him.

Entertaining enough for kids and most adults alike, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" could quite likely end up as a TV series in which its episodic and kid friendly nature would seem to be a perfect fit. As a feature film, it has enough fun and funny moments to earn a passing grade of 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 15, 2010 / Posted March 19, 2010

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